How Hilary Benn’s heart must have sunk at the arrival of yet another report on the state of rural Britain. New Labour has never quite understood the countryside, and those made responsible for it – Nick Smith, Margaret Beckett, Ben Bradshaw, David Miliband – have exuded the long-suffering air of professional politicians doing their best until a more important job comes along.
Rural bulletins rarely contain good news, least of all for ministers and civil servants. The type of problems they present – planning issues, GM crops, supermarkets, post offices, flooding, environmental pressures – seem peculiarly resistant to flashy, vote-catching initiatives.
This lack of political will and imagination is reflected in a report just published by Stuart Burgess, the government’s rural advocate. Taking a refreshingly sceptical view of his employers’ approach to the countryside, Dr Burgess has suggested, in effect, that it has been convenient for those in power and in the media to buy into an easy Vicar of Dibley view of the countryside as a place of affluence and agreeable eccentricity. Yet around 2.2m people in rural areas are living below the poverty threshold. What the report calls “a forgotten city of disadvantage” is ignored because it is so widely dispersed.
Even those who are better off are “increasingly isolated and excluded from their community” with the closure of village shops, post offices, pubs and doctors’ surgeries. The hopeless decline of public transport adds to the problem.
There is a pattern to all this. A growth-obsessed government, deeply in love with big business and over-fond of headline-grabbing initiatives, has allowed a dangerous giantism to squeeze the life out of many small communities. Across the country, vast supermarkets have killed off smaller shops and local suppliers. Post offices, which fulfil an important social need, particularly for the vulnerable and old, are required to be as profitable as any other capitalist business. Transport investment invariably goes on roads rather than on buses or rail routes.
These trends reflect a tension the national and the local, between large and small. By any normal logic, it would make sense, at a time when the rural poor are unable to buy a house, for the government to discourage – perhaps, in some areas, ban – the acquisition by rich townies of second homes. But to make any move against the right of the well-off to make money from the property market would be seen as a strike against the might of capital. So, far from helping the rural housing crisis, the Chancellor is reducing capital gains tax from up to 40 per cent to 18 per cent, thereby actually encouraging investment in empty property.
Clearly, at a time when small businesses are under pressure, it would make sense to discourage the ruinous march of Tesco and others. But supermarkets bring large profits and have a one-off, noticeable effect on the jobs market which make it easy to ignore the gradual and more complex erosion of jobs of supply that they set in motion.
Here is the truth behind the lip-service paid by politicians to the new localism. Even as Gordon Brown calls for “a vibrant, reinvigorated local democracy”, councils are increasingly buckling under pressure from big government and big business.
A simple subtext can be discerned in this latest report on the state of the countryside. Surprisingly often, people are more important than profits.
A quick flash from Jennifer
Spring is on the way and someone has clearly decided that the there is too much winter greyness in government. Jennifer Moses, a former director of the undies firm Agent Provocateur, now has an office at 10 Downing Street where she is to develop ideas for the next election. Moses is American, a former banker, and impressively rich – when her assistant stole £1m from her personal account, it took two years for anyone to notice. Meanwhile, the Home Office’s alcohol tsar, Dr Ziggy Macdonald, has revealed that he likes exotic cocktails and visiting late-night bars. All this colourful behaviour in Westminster is unsettling. Has someone been studying the career of Nicolas Sarkozy?
* Jimmy Wales and Rachel Marsden had a lot going for them. He was 41 and co-founder of Wikipedia. She was a glamorous 33-year-old right-wing pundit in Canada. For some time, Rachel had kept her friends and fans up to speed on her private life with a blog, but she was unhappy with the way some of the details from her past, which allegedly included a couple of harassment suits and an affair with a counter-terrorism officer, were reported on Wikipedia. She wrote to Jimmy. They met. They had an affair. Then last week Rachel logged on to Wikipedia and discovered that it was all over. “I am no longer involved with Rachel Marsden,” Jimmy had written. She found a shirt and jersey he had left at her flat on their one night together and auctioned them on eBay. Here is a perfect modern romance. It is sad, but unsurprising, that its only non-virtual moment was a bit of a flop.