England's pastoral paradise lost?
The iconic English countryside is losing its luster, as growing poverty and isolation stalk idyllic village outposts.
SALFORD PRIORS, ENGLAND
This village, a stone's throw from the birthplace of William Shakespeare, is postcard- perfect. There are rolling fields, undulating country lanes, thatched cottages, and a rugged Norman church. It's the rural idyll that inspired some of Britain's finest poets.
But behind the Cotswold stone and half-timbered exteriors lurks a malaise. Country life is seriously threatened.
Across Britain, shops, post offices, banks, and even pubs are shutting at alarming rates. Transport links are becoming fitful. Local farms, squeezed by bulk-purchasing supermarkets, are on their knees. And wealthy second-home buyers are driving up home prices beyond the reach of locals.
The result is that deprivation is now stalking the countryside. For all its pockets of affluence, rural Britain is home to 3 million people who live below the poverty threshold, according to one recent study.
"Certainly some aspects of life in rural Britain are under threat," says Quintin Fox, head of consultancy at the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that works to improve life for rural residents.
The problem is essentially one of big driving out small. Banking giants bought out smaller networks and promptly closed down those little, inefficient branches that glued communities together.
The money-losing national postal service has shut thousands of costly post offices - vital centers that dispense an array of administrative services from mail to social welfare benefits. Mammoth supermarkets have proliferated, squeezing out local retailers. Privatized transport networks circumvent undersubscribed routes.
"You are getting a gradual erosion of local services, banks, post offices, corner stores, news agents, lots of things piling up on top of each other which lead communities to a tipping point," says Andrew Simms, policy director for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a London-based think tank that has conducted extensive research into what it calls "ghost-town Britain." "It's self- reinforcing because once people can no longer get goods and services from local communities, the greater the incentive to go to the big out-of-town superstores."
According to NEF, a general store shuts every day somewhere in Britain, a third of banks have been shut in the past decade, and 1 in 5 post offices has closed in the past 20 years.
Locals tell a story of benign neglect. Norman Wilson used to run the post office in Tibenham, in eastern England. In recent years, he says, the school closed, the last village shop shut, and the post office was squeezed into submission by the national postal authorities.
"Now, we have a community hall, a public house, and a church. That's it," he says. "If you go back to the mid-19th century, there were seven pubs and two dozen shops and double the number of people."
Shutting down services wouldn't be so bad if transport links to major towns were better. According to the Plunkett Foundation, more than a million rural residents live without cars in villages with no shops.
For others, public transport is the only link between remote communities and vital services. And yet the same efficiency drive that has downsized postal and banking services has eaten away at bus and train links. Many villages are lucky to have a twice-daily bus service. Some pensioners now face hours of bus journeys just to collect their pensions.
"Transport is a problem," says Reg Stokes, a Salford Priors resident. "The bus service is fairly infrequent and quite expensive, yet people need it to get to the supermarkets and doctors."
Of course, it's not all gloom and doom in Britain's rural heartland. Stokes says most Salford Priors villagers are happy to live in splendid isolation. Inconvenience, he says, is just the price of living in an unspoiled part of the world.
"This is just life in the country and there are many benefits, too," he says. "Most of us realize that people from towns and cities still want to live in the country."
Ironically, this desire on the part of cityfolk for a place in the countryside is creating a new problem for rural Britain.
In recent years, thousands have lined up to buy second homes in far-flung corners of the country, driving up property prices beyond the reach of locals and creating a ghost-town effect when they leave their weekend retreat to return the city.
Realtors estimate that England has more than 200,000 second homes worth some $70 billion. The downside to this hot market is acute in the rugged southwest. In the village of East Portlemouth, more than 60 percent of its properties have been snapped up as second homes.
Simms says the problem with second-home owners is that they do not invest locally. "You might load your Mercedes up with plastic bags from Sainsbury's or Tesco's and head off for the weekend, and a swift drink in the local pub is the limit of your investment in the local community."
So what can be done to save the British countryside? Some activists are pushing measures to help local food markets cut out the middleman, helping both consumers and local businesses. It is argued that money spent locally has a positive regeneration effect, continuing to circulate in the local community. Some also urge antitrust measures against supermarkets that dominate any rural landscape.
Others like the Plunkett Foundation are concentrating on self-help initiatives. In one community near Oxford that lost its post office, two shops, and a pub, locals joined to turn the village hall into a shop-cum-community-center.
Another set up a charity to build affordable homes for locals so they wouldn't be outmuscled by the second-home brigade.
"Communities are being encouraged to take a more enterprising approach," says Fox. "It's a self-sustaining process. There is still a lot of work to be done, but they are beginning to plug the gaps."