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Shadows over the rural idyll

The dream of a life in the country is turning into a nightmare for those who are struggling to find

Photograph by local photographer James Swan, who is based in Rookhope. For more examples of his work visit www.cygnetimages.com

Rookhope sits some 20 miles west of Durham. High up, it has its own freezing microclimate, and snow covers the ground. Tumbledown cottages in overgrown fields sit next to privately renovated houses. Fragments of the mineral that used to be mined here - fluorspar - lie on windowsills, the pieces scattered by residents as emblems of a time when the population was ten times the 250 or so it is today. There is now just one shop and it's open for three hours a day. The local primary school has 14 pupils. The nearest jobcentre is 15 miles away.

Around the back of the main street, a man sits on a doorstep with his hood up and a dog by his side. Known as Beardy Karl to local people and suffering from severe back problems, he is on jobseeker's allowance of £65 a week. On winter mornings, Karl tells me, he thinks of only one thing: "Fuel is my main concern. I wake up, I have a few cigs and see if I'm fit enough to go and collect sticks. I took the dog this morning for a couple of hours and I've got three loads, but they're soaking wet and they'll have to stand. Luckily I'm able to do it at the moment, but if I have a bad turn I won't be able to."

In rural areas, poverty comes with a premium. According to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), it costs between 10 and 20 per cent more to have a basic standard of living in rural areas than it does in urban areas, largely because of the extra energy and transport costs. With almost 40 per cent of village households in the north-east living in fuel poverty (spending over 10 per cent of their income on fuel), Karl and his neighbours are some of the worst affected in the country.

According to the JRF, this poverty premium increases the more sparsely populated an area becomes. It costs £30,000 a year to raise a family with four children in an urban area, £38,000 in a rural area. In a remote village such as Rook­hope, the figure rockets to £42,000. National research indicates that a quarter of all people living in areas of low population live below the poverty line.

“These are not frivolous costs," says Chris Goulden, policy and research manager at the JRF. "We're looking at the basic costs people need to meet to participate in society - going to school, buying food, accessing services. All these things add up because of the isolation."

Old king coal

There are many reasons why costs are higher in rural areas. Half of remote areas don't have access to mains gas supplies - the cheapest form of energy in most urban areas - so families have to rely on coal or electricity. On top of that, rural areas tend to be colder, the wages tend to be lower and their older houses are harder to insulate. In Rookhope, coal costs £11.50 a bag and it takes three bags a week to heat a small house. For Karl, that's over half of his weekly benefits.

Public transport is also problematic. Outside the school term, the first bus out of the village is 11am, and the last one back is 4pm; before and after these hours, it's lockdown. Karl has been told that, to continue withdrawing his benefits, he needs to complete compulsory work experience in the next town. These shifts won't just cost him money in travel; they will also cost him precious time he needs to collect firewood.

“They seem determined to make things more difficult for us," Karl says. "In this particular village there is none [no work], or what's there's already taken. There's a garage over there, but they have a few boys already, then there's the pub and they've already got people. There's a few others - but I ask them if they want help and they say no."

Not everyone in the village is in the same position as Karl. Walk inside the Rookhope Inn and you get a sense of the range of the place. There are the Rookhopians - drystone wallers and former workers at the cement factory until it closed down in 2002; and the "incomers" - new people who have moved to the village and commute or work from home. A man known as Ra-Ra James, a photographer who lives in a five-bedroomed house and likes to talk about his skiing trips, sits next to a young couple who moved here a few years ago to run their own internet start-up. The variety can create tension. Older villagers who have lived in Rookhope for generations don't think there's enough room for "plants": social housing tenants moved into the village by the council.

“There are two big stereotypes about rural areas that we need to dispose of," says Sarah McAdam, chief executive of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC). "The first is that rural areas are all chocolate-box villages where everyone has expensive homes and pleasant lives. Of course there are some very affluent homes, but they mask the smaller families that live in poverty next door.

“The second misconception is that the rural economy is all farming, forestry and tourism. Contrary to the stereotypes, there's a high level of entrepreneurship, microbusinesses and home-working."

Spot checks

Whatever their income level, all villagers in Rookhope are affected by poor communications infrastructure. According to the CRC, just 12 per cent of households in the village and the surrounding area have broadband, compared to 64 per cent of households on average in England, and the coverage that is available is often poor. "Not-spots" - areas where there is little or no mobile-phone coverage and broadband access - almost always occur in such sparsely populated areas, deterring incomers who might otherwise bring in new hi-tech industries and further isolating those who cannot afford to move elsewhere.

This isolation is likely to get worse with government spending cuts. In a swift cull by the coalition, the CRC has already been shut and swallowed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. McAdam is afraid that other rural providers will follow suit. "There is a concern that services will become even more centralised in the drive for efficiency," she says. "A lot of services are moving online instead, but for many rural communities that's just not possible. Poor transport links mean that sick or elderly patients can spend most of the day getting to and from a half-hour appointment."

Can't local volunteers step in - the "big society" in action? "There is generally a high level of volunteering in rural areas, which are providing some strong examples of how communities can pull together with the help of an inspiring voluntary sector," McAdam says, "but the problem is that these communities rely on these services already. There's a concern about how much more they can do."

At the Rookhope Inn, the locals seem more confident. Crink is a stonemason and builder born and bred in the Dales. "You've got to remember where you came from," he tells me, putting down his drink. "When you needed your guttering done, I did it. When you need your plumbing done, I'll do it for you. If I need some extra wood, you'll give me some offcuts from the job. It doesn't matter who's in government - we've survived many times over, and we'll do it again."

Research for this article was conducted with the help of Local Futures, which provides holistic data and intelligence on local areas. For more info visit: www.localfutures.com

A shifting population

The latest report from the soon-to-be-scrapped Commission for Rural Communities, State of the Countryside 2010, shows a heat map of England indicating which areas 18-to-25-year-olds are migrating from and to. Rural areas in the north are haemorrhaging young people.

Young people make up a fifth of urban populations, but roughly one-tenth of those in rural areas. To compound this, the number of old people living in rural areas increased by half a million between 2001 and 2008. Despite the youth exodus, the net trend is away from cities and towards the countryside. From 2007 to 2008, net internal migration to rural areas was 64,000.

Internal migration is still the biggest mover of people in England, but immigration grabs the headlines. Rural communities enjoy a higher proportion of immigrants from EU accession countries - such as Poland and the Baltic states - than the rest of England. The stereotype that rural areas are hostile to immigration does not hold up, however. Eighty per cent of people from rural areas agreed that people from different backgrounds get on well, against 75 per cent in metropolitan areas.

And overall, countryside-dwellers are more content: 87 per cent of those living in rural locales declared themselves satisfied with their area, but just 75 per cent of city-dwellers agreed.

Duncan Robinson

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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