It's time for a rethink if village life is to survive
PUBLISHED: 19:47 02 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:07 03 August 2018
A couple of years ago, after questioning in this column why anyone would choose to live in a village, I was told to buzz off (though far less politely) to a faraway metropolis, taking my opinions with me.
Highlighting loneliness and isolation that rural living can bring was “bad press’ for the warm and welcoming villages of East Anglia. How very dare I speak the truth?
Listing the lack of access to basic services, poor public transport, weak broadband and mobile phone signals, sky-high property prices, insular gossipy cliques and streets and lanes of second homes and holiday lets put me firmly on Norfolk’s most (not) wanted list.
It was tantamount to treason.
But life in villages isn’t all about woodburners, parish magazines and birdsong. We must wake up to that.
It can be a lonely hell, especially for the elderly, who too often have to relinquish their independence too soon to rely on family, friends and neighbours to do their shopping, banking, prescription pick-ups and give them lifts as basic rural services are being stripped away.
Survival in today’s villages is about being tough, pragmatic, having no expectations and expecting to rely on others earlier in life than planned, which many old people quite rightly loathe.
This is made all the more difficult as generations are priced out of their home villages and lives are stretching longer.
Far from being a tranquil idyll, rural life is increasingly challenging, solitary and difficult, for the community as well as individuals.
To try to address this, a new “village survival guide” is being produced by Prince Charles’ countryside charity to help people cope and communities become more resilient, self sufficient and stronger.
The guide was a reaction to the Prince’s Countryside Fund’s survey where isolated, invisible and ignored was how many villagers described their day-to-day existence, as services and facilities ceased and closed.
It’s always been the rural youth complaining there was nothing to do, but if you’re old in a village today life can soon feel empty and without purpose long before it should.
Without a car, people are trapped, with health services, banks, shops – even the basics – schools, and libraries shifting further and further away.
Neighbours could be holiday lets or Monday-Friday Londoners, ‘home’ for just weekends with no interest in getting stuck in to village life, or popping to the shops for the 90-year-old next door.
Just how crucial rural services are hit home a few weeks ago in a small Suffolk town when my partner took his 90-year-old late uncle’s death certificate in to the last remaining building society or bank in the town to close his account.
“Not Mr Stacey,” the cashier said. “ I thought he hadn’t been in this month. He always withdrew the same amount every month, in the same denominations. We always had a chat.”
She was genuinely sad that another of the dwindling roll call of customers who walked in person regularly had gone. She also remembered my partner’s late mother, who died two years ago.
I’m as guilty as anyone for running my life on-line to save time.
But time is what old people have and regular visits to the bank can be the only interaction old people might have for days.
And it’s not just that. It gets them out of the house, maintaining their independence for perhaps a short walk or taxi or bus ride and keeps them feeling in charge of their own lives.
Once ‘pyjama paralysis’, as the NHS calls it, starts because they are confined to their homes, they need health services sooner than they might if they kept themselves active. Everything has a knock-on effect.
In this community, all the other banks and building societies had gone. My partner’s uncle and mother had shifted their accounts every time another had withdrawn from the small high street until only this one remained.
If that closes, the nearest will be miles away, seriously affecting small rural-based businesses too
Hardly a revelation, but the Prince’s survey found the top three changes communities want was a reverse in the closure of key services, fairer funding for rural areas and better broadband and mobile coverage
It’s time for different thinking if villages are to survive. The tide won’t change.
They need to look after themselves before they are further over-looked and disregarded.
A change in expectations needs to be shaped too, as well as practices and villages need to make them work themselves
Pop-up services like mobile banks, shops and job centres would bring the services back at least once a week. Creating community hubs would bring people together and provide a focus for social interaction.
The survival guide gives advice on setting up a community business, and a top ten resilience checklist listing the key assets that make rural communities sustainable.
Villages might look like the perfect havens for holidaymakers and draw in the tourist trade now, but even that will dwindle if they become hollow shells.
The past will never be revived but a future is possible with different thinking, embracing change and a few driven risk-takers who can make enough noise and follow through with actions.
If communities don’t say enough is enough, they will be forgotten