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