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The oldies invade: good or bad for country life?

Friday 12 November 2004

Our veteran country commentator John Sheard, who himself moved full time into the country in his forties, studies a new report on the aging rural population and asks: can we wrinklies be of use in our dotage?

IT IS not often that a report on rural living comes up in a way which sends me into deep circumspection about my own role in country life. But it happened this week and it has given me much pause for thought.

The report came in Countryside Voice, the magazine of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), and it offers a thought-creating picture of an already aging rural population whose numbers are being swelled by a vast influx of 50-somethings (and older) from the towns and cities.

Can wrinklies like John Sheard be of use in the country?
Can wrinklies like John Sheard be of use in the country?

Some of the statistics it offers sound quite alarming. The rural population is expected to swell by four million souls in the next 20 years, and a large proportion of those will be people in their 50s and 60s moving from urban areas.

Yet 16% of all country parishes have no bus service and 86% have no doctors' surgery - so how will old folk get to see their doctors? That, however, is the downside. On the upside is the fact that of the over 65s who continue to work after retirement age, 30% live in the country. And the small businesses country pensioners set up tend to be the most successful.

But the point raised by the CPRE study that affects me personally is this: can older people actually be of benefit to rural life and the community in general? And it's question that in all honesty I find difficult to answer.

I mean, it is not as though I employ anybody - I am a one-man-band. I don't make anything that people would want to buy. And, yes, when we moved to a small village in the Dales almost 20 years ago, we did unknowingly put up the price of the cottage we bought - we were accused of that in the local pub on our very first visit.

Nor have I stood for the parish council or joined many local organisations, except my rugby club. I come from the old fashioned school which says that journalists should remain independent of local bodies. And I also happen to know that offcumdens taking over the parish council is often a source of indignation to the locals.

This is mentioned in the CPRE report, which goes into some detail about frictions between locals and new arrivals. On the other hand, it says that the money well-to-do offcumdens bring into local communities is good for local businesses. If, of course, there are any local businesses left in their village!

And here, I think, is the rub. There are too many wealthy retirees who would run a mile rather than use the village shop. They prefer to drive miles to a Sainsbury's, buy their wines from a national wine club, entertain at home rather than use local restaurants - and wouldn't be seen dead in the village pub.

These, I fear, are a curse on the countryside because they take over local homes and offer very little back. I suspect that they are the type of people who never spoke to their neighbours when they lived in suburbia, so why change now?

Now where we fit in this scale of things I cannot say. My wife at least does a useful job helping out at a nearby children's nursery. We have a deliberate policy of using local shops and, if possible, buying local produce. And I don't think that local publicans can complain about our spending habits.

But then, we've been here almost 20 years. And I was brought up in the country, so I already knew something of its little ways before we arrived. In anything I write I do my level best to champion the rural cause. But whether I am of any use is not for me to say...

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