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Poor but proud: a "new" old find on country life

Friday 16 June 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard tries, but fails, not to say 'I told you so' after a new Government report on rural poverty reveals facts that were well known 20 years ago

REGULAR readers will know that I tend to be distinctly underwhelmed with the findings of so-called "experts" who spend years investigating rural problems, like missionaries from Victorian religious orders despatched to darkest Africa to bring civilisation to the natives.

It is not that I dislike these people personally - most of them go about their jobs with zeal and a genuine belief that they can make life better for we poor benighted country cousins - but I do resent the time and money (our money) that is wasted on such projects to gather a few facts and opinions they could have picked up in a couple of hours over a pint in any village pub.

Pretty - but poor for some
Pretty – but poor for some

The results of such a survey were published last week and, although it is a phrase I hate, I cannot stop myself saying 'I told you so.' For, surprise, surprise, the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) has found out that there is poverty in the countryside. In fact, it reports, one in five country folk live on or below the official poverty line.

Now I could have told them that for free 20 years ago. If they had bothered to read their newspapers, or listened to various voluntary organisations, social workers and clergy who work full time in rural areas, they could have come to such a conclusion in a couple of hours (if, of course, they had access to that rare piece of kit in Whitehall, a government computer that worked).

Or, much more pleasantly, they could have bought a couple of gills for the locals down at almost any traditional - as opposed to tarted-up - Dales pub, switched on a tape recorder, and done a really useful piece of research whilst putting a few much-needed shillings into the landlord's till.

Having done it the hard and expensive way, the commission appears to have been shocked that there are some poor folk out there in the hills and dales. Because, unlike their inner city counterparts who know every sub-clause of every paragraph in all and every piece of government welfare legislation, country folk don't moan about their poverty.

Because, I could also have told them many years ago, country folk don't ask for what they see as charity. They would rather disguise their poverty, and often suffer very real deprivation, than reveal to their neighbours that they are on their uppers. It's a virtue you don't hear of much these days. It's called personal pride.

But I also have another nugget of news for the CRC. In the past 20 years, the rural poor have been getting even poorer, not because of personal sloth, but because the traditional rural society they were born into has in many ways collapsed around their ears.

First, there was the sudden decline in rural employment. Few farmers can today afford to hire paid labour. Many small family-owned quarries closed, their demise often accelerated by complaints from offcumdens about quarry wagons on the roads.

With fewer jobs available, less money came into many villages, which caused the closure of the shop, the post office and often the pub. This meant more job losses, small in number but high in percentage terms in tiny communities.

With all this came the collapse of local public transport. For poor people without cars, their local shop gone, even buying groceries became a nightmare. Getting to the supermarket in local market town meant higher fares on ever fewer buses, taking a big chunk of their income before they had bought a crust.

I could have told the CRC this and more 20 years ago. In fact, there was even in those days a body which dealt with such issues, the Rural Development Commission. The Labour government closed it down within months of being elected. Should the newly minted CRC want more info on this subject, please give me a ring. It will cost you a couple of pints but I will put it on disc for you, assuming your office machine isn't working.

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