WHAT ABOUT A SOCIALLY SUSTAINABLE COUNTRYSIDE?
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
I am becoming very tired of all the people shouting about farming having to be sustainable and the countryside having to be managed sustainably. All this grandiose shouting, preaching and proselytizing is fine BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE?
If the Countryside and Farming has to be sustainable, it has to be socially sustainable. By this I mean both farming and the countryside has to be able to support the capacity of current and future generations to live in healthy and liveable communities. By this we need to provide what people need in the countryside to live and work with the infrastructure to support practical, business, social and cultural life. The countryside must provide continuing opportunities for all its members and growth for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
To understand what I mean I am going to compare the town of Crowland in Lincolnshire with Rothbury in Northumberland both ancient rural towns albeit in different enviroments. A few weeks ago I stayed in Rothbury for the third time in my life, and four years since my last visit. Whilst walking around I said to my wife, “It’s hard to believe, but when I was a kid in the early 1970’s Crowland was as busy as this town is now.”
Crowland used to have three Banks, many thriving shops and pubs, a secondary school, a busy market day. Indeed, I remember May Day in Crowland when the streets were filled with thousands of people as their May Day was such a big event. Of course, at that time traffic to Peterborough still travelled through Crowland with The George and Angel pub frequently hit by lorries as they navigated around the famous triangular bridge and ensuing travel chaos. However, Crowland did enjoy good public transport connectivity to surrounding towns and villages that was far better than the Spalding – Crowland – Peterborough service available today. In 1987 I worked in Crowland manning the counter at the small Barclays Bank and there were still many thriving businesses using that service in the wide catchment area. Also affordability of housing being a satellite to a significant city puts young families at a severe disadvantage in trying to get their first home in the area. But as is the nature of things as the town had been bypassed and employment migrated from the rural economy to the ever growing nearby Peterborough. Crowland became a dormitory, a place for people to sleep rather than live and work in and around. Despite its population growing and there being more houses, it lost all its Banks, its secondary school, its business and the market days are just a few stalls. It is not that Crowland is an unpleasant place, it is very good and nice place to live. The social function of a town that becomes a satellite to a growing city, that to most is a dormitory is limited. The opportunities available in such a town are limited as the ability to drive becomes a necessity for both work, to access services and social functions.
Rothbury has thriving shops, including the rarity of an independent electrical goods shop. It has fought for and managed to retain its hospital. The bus service is good from Thropton through to Morpeth. Banks are closing. The pubs that remain are good with two having closed ( I was told one was due to Covid, but hopes to reopen and the other was due to drugs) since my last visit. It is about 20 miles to the nearest petrol station, but I am pleased to learn that nearby Thropton is soon to have its own petrol station and shop creating over 20 jobs and providing an essential lifeline in such a rural area where you currently have to burn a gallon of petrol to fill up the car! I note that the Police Station that was tied in with an art studio has closed. Rothbury does benefit from seasonal tourism. I understand in the last three years it has experienced a significant road closure on the main road to Morpeth that lasted nearly two years due to a land slip and that the resulting diversion was a challenging winter drive over the hills and moor near Cragside. Whilst my impression is that it is thriving town it is clearly not without its difficulties in retaining its sustainability. Like Crowland I see new housing that is out of reach of local earnings being promoted by builders. Rothbury has an additional problem, and that is the “second home” buyer purchasing property and using it for holiday lets. I see massive growth in both Morpeth and Alnwick with job creation and growth in those towns similar to that of Peterborough in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Is Rothbury in danger of becoming a dormitory town that is also affected by second home owners? I get the impression that local politicians are fighting for local resources. I suggest the voters of Rothbury keep them on their toes to ensure their town and community retains its social sustainability.
It is not just the rural towns and villages that need to ensure social sustainability it is also the farms and farmers. Contrary to some people’s opinion the countryside does not look after itself. Farmers and their families get their living from it and for this to continue and thrive they need to be supported to retain their own social sustainability and not be disadvantaged by lack of supporting infrastructure and services. In the past Estate owners recognised this and saw their wealth as a responsibility to the community investing in that community with essential services and infrastructure. This was essential as to run their estates and manage the countryside more labour was required and you needed to look after the source of that labour. This is not the case nowadays and local and national government has taken on much of the supply of this with varying degrees of success and failure when it comes to creating a socially sustainable countryside.
So the next time we hear of any grandiose plan for the management of the countryside and its resources consider the people that live and work there. When anybody says that their plan is ecologically or environmentally sustainable ask them, “Is it socially sustainable?”