The basic numbers tell the tale, 16% of the English population live in London. Yet 17% of the English population live in rural areas. Yet when it comes to transport, “Local authorities in rural areas have far less funding available to them to support bus services. In 2017/18 expenditure in predominantly rural areas was £6.72 per resident to subsidise services, compared with £31.93 in predominantly urban areas. Expenditure to cover concessionary bus fares was £13.48 (rural) and £25.54 (urban) respectively.”
Now I don’t know about you but I was always told that rural bus services and similar couldn’t be run because there weren’t enough people. Urban bus services survived because of the sheer number of people who wanted to travel. Urban bus services benefited from a ‘critical mass’ that rural services would never equal.
But frankly urban bus services survive because governments over the years have hosed them with money to support their urban electorate.
Then there’s housing. ‘Nice houses in the country’ have always cost more. Follow the A592 into the Lake District from the south and play ‘spot the multi-million pound houses. The problem is that two bedroom ground floor flats are £185,000 if you can find them. Whilst to rent two bedroom flats are £650 per month if they’re not out on Airbnb. Try renting in summer. In Barrow (where a lot of people live who work in Windermere, a two bedroomed terraced house is under £500 a month and you can buy a modernised three bedroomed terraced house for the £185,000.
Because of the drive for ‘working from home,’ or at least ‘flexible working’ prices for houses outside major cities have risen by 10.8% over the pandemic, as opposed to a rise of 8.9% in the major cities.
In a county like Cumbria, a lot of houses in rural villages are now second homes, or are lived in by people who have retired to the county. As it is, Cumbria is a largely self-contained functional economic area, with 96 per cent of Cumbria’s residents working in Cumbria, and with 94 per cent of all jobs based in Cumbria filled by Cumbrian residents. The problem is that the residents are being forced to the periphery of the county where house prices are lower because it isn’t as pretty.
Before the pandemic I was talking to one big hotelier, he used almost entirely British staff and spent (from memory,) over £100,000 a year busing them in from the periphery of the county using hired coaches. It was costing so much he was looking at plans to build accommodation to house over a hundred staff ‘on-site’ in their own rooms. This was because the cost of borrowing the money to build to Lake District National Park standards was still lower than the cost of transporting staff. Obviously there were no staff to be had locally because you cannot afford to work in hospitality and live in the area.
I was talking to a chap who used to manage holiday cottages for an agency. They didn’t own the cottages, but managed them for the owners. My contact was the one who got phoned at 2am to be told that the microwave wasn’t working. When it came to cleaning the cottages between guests, there was a set sum in the budget. Initially there had been the hope that he could get local people to come in and do it, but there weren’t any local people available. He ended up with the mobile phone number for a lady from a rundown industrial town twenty miles away. He’d phone and give the lady the addresses of the house that wanted cleaning. She knew the rate per house. He turned up to meet them on one occasion, and out of a rather small car stepped the lady, her sister, her daughter, and two toddlers. The houses were cleaned and left immaculate and he would get a hand written invoice at the end of the week. He made a point of paying promptly. He knew they needed the money and he didn’t want to lose a team so competent.
I was talking to another chap who worked as an agricultural contractor. Thirty years ago farms would have employed local lads, but given the drop in food prices and the increase in house prices, you struggle to find local lad. Farmers just hire contractors instead. This particular chap was working with a round baler. He set off at some ridiculously early hour to get to the first farm. He then sat for an hour waiting for the hay to dry out ready to bale, watching the traffic on the road by the field grow steadily heavier.
When he finished working on that farm his next job was at another farm about fifteen miles down the road. After an hour winding his way through traffic he finally got there and managed to get that baled before the weather broke.
But for local people stuck in traffic I think it takes a lot to beat a knacker wagon driver I know. His round, collecting animals that have died on farm and smallholdings, takes him throughout most of Cumbria. He inches his way through the snow, makes his careful way through floodwater, and tries to avoid tourists, all on roads little wider that his wagon.
One day at the height of summer he ended up coming into Ambleside in the early afternoon. Because of the one way system, coming in from Coniston, he had to go the long way through Ambleside. Unfortunately the village is snarled solid and he’s stuck in traffic. It was a hot day and you can imagine the smell.
After half an hour of going nowhere a policeman approached his wagon and taps on the window. The knacker wound the window down and the policeman just said, “You, we are getting out of the village as soon as we can.”
To be fair to the police they cleared a one way street so he could go up it the wrong way. Once through the street he could turn right and they’d make sure the traffic was flowing well enough to get him out into open country.
Gratefully he made his way up the street to be met by a tourist travelling in the opposite direction. She got out of her car, berated him, swore at him, demanded he back and when he didn’t she squeezed her car past him, into the waiting arms of a policeman who’d come up to see what was going on. Apparently she’d ignored the road closed sign his colleague had put at the top of the street and as the knacker drove off, a stern faced policeman was taking down her details.
But yes, the way things are going, we’re going to struggle to have village communities and local culture. We already have communities in the Lake District where nobody lives any more. Even in places like Keswick nearly half the properties are holiday lets or second homes. Then there’s the explosion in Airbnb.
If you’re not careful you’ll end having a holiday home in the same village as your next door neighbours.
There again, what do I know? Speak to the experts
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As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”