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30 April 2018updated 17 Jan 2024 6:18am

Crumbling Britain: how austerity is hollowing out the heart of Tory Somerset

With two-thirds of children’s centres closing, West Somerset has the worst social mobility in the country – and families are suffering.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Richard Eales pulls off his walking shoes and sits back on the sofa in his caravan, where he lives with his wife and their four-year-old son. Wisps of dog hair stick to his khaki polo shirt, which bears the badge: “Exmoor National Park Ranger”. His three dogs, Jet, Star and Sky, settle at his feet.

The 40-year-old father has been living for 17 years on the edge of Dulverton, a remote rural town in west Somerset known as the “gateway to Exmoor”. From managing the native pony herds and deer to grappling with farmers and landowners, Eales says: “It’s not a job; it’s a way of life. You’re always on duty.”

Even when opening a tab at the pub, he’s logged as “National Park – Richard”. As he travels around Dulverton’s narrow streets in his mud-splattered Land Rover, the tall and gregarious figure seems to know everyone.

His first child Thomas attended Little Owls, the local nursery, from the “the age of nought”. The nursery opens 8am-6pm Monday to Friday, 49 weeks a year, for children up until the age of four.

But the family might not be here much longer.

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Little Owls nursery is facing spending cuts, and Richard’s wife, Rebecca, who works as a dental hygienist, is three months’ pregnant. The nearest alternative nursery would add almost two hours to their daily drive, which would, in effect, stop them working.

Yet Eales and other parents isolated deep in this wooded valley have been told that Little Owls’ hours are likely to be reduced after the next academic year to 9am-3.30pm Monday to Thursday, term-time only, with no provision for under-twos. “We couldn’t afford to live if Bex [my wife] wasn’t working,” Eales says.

The current nursery provision is only continuing until July 2019. It applies for emergency money to keep the hours that it does, which is not deemed sustainable. A Somerset county council spokesperson tells me the nursery “applied for and recently received a grant from the Sustainability Fund and can apply again”​ but that “these grants are to help providers while they look for ways of being sustainable in the long term and we are currently helping the nursery do that”.​

“I look at other families and I can see why they’re claiming [benefits],” Eales sighs. “We’d be far better off money-wise if we moved further away. You stick it for as long as you can, but you get these hurdles chucked in front of you that keep getting bigger.”

Dulverton’s state provision has been rolled back. Its Sure Start children’s centre was “de-designated” (transferred to the local school and stripped of many services) in 2014 – a precursor to this year’s decision to close two-thirds of Sure Start buildings in Somerset.

Recent government figures reveal that more than 500 Sure Start centres – established by the last Labour government in 1998 to provide early years support – have closed throughout the country since 2010, when the Conservatives took office.

The Council insists children’s services will still be available – just no longer run in “expensive and sometimes difficult to reach buildings”, which will instead be taken over by nurseries, schools and others. But that was not the result in Dulverton, which made this change four years ago.

Once a hub of parent clubs and support sessions, Dulverton children’s centre services have been “really reduced”, according to Becky Fry, who has a four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. She relied on the weekly baby group, health visitors and reading time with her first child. “I don’t know what I would have done without it… I’ve struggled with my second one.” She works for a charity more than a 45-minute drive away from where she lives.

Dulverton’s library, a former green-fronted old ironmongers on the main square, is also under threat – nearly half of Somerset’s libraries face closure as the council consults on making them community- or volunteer-supported instead of council-run, or replacing them with mobile libraries. In the consultation, Dulverton library has a “no change” option, but locals are gloomy about its fate.

The town even lost its only bank two years ago; now a mobile bank stops by every Tuesday for 45 minutes in the late morning.

“By taking all that away, you’re not encouraging any young, working families to live and stay in the area. You’re literally just pushing them out,” says Richard Eales, the park ranger.

The woodland idyll masks widespread deprivation. West Somerset has the worst social mobility in England, performing particularly poorly on services for early years and working-age people. Job opportunities are scarce and public transport poor – the word “bus” provokes bitter laughter from people I meet.

Wages are low but retirees moving in, and holidaymakers with second homes for shooting and fishing on Exmoor, inflate property prices. West Somerset has Britain’s highest percentage of people aged 65 and over, and its population is dwindling.

“We’re not a theme park or just a place for people to retire to,” says the Somerset county councillor for Dulverton, Conservative Frances Nicholson. “Working families should be supported because they will move out.”

Rural deprivation is so great that the government has made west Somerset an “opportunities area”: an area to focus funds on improving outcomes for children.

For residents like Eales, however, it’s already too late. “It almost feels like [living here] you are being pushed beyond the realms of our reach,” he says. “It’s austerity, isn’t it?”

Somerset is solid Tory territory. With the exception of Bath, all its constituencies are held by Conservative MPs – the best-known being Jacob Rees-Mogg (whose six children are unlikely to bear the brunt of Sure Start cuts).

Yet, because of the “Corbyn effect”, west Somerset’s local Labour Party membership has more than tripled in the last two years. “No Labour politicians ever come to this area,” leader Kathrine See tells me. “We’ve got to tackle these communities; we can’t just ignore them. For one, it’s not responsible because that’s not part of the [Labour slogan] ‘For the many’, and two, we need their votes… It’s a poor area for the majority.”

Local Tories also feel neglected by their Westminster counterparts. “I’m just wondering where our society’s going, and what can be done? And are our policymakers really in touch with the grassroots?” asks the chairman of West Somerset Council, Bruce Heywood, who has represented Dulverton since 2011, when I meet him for a coffee outside the grey stone-walled Tantivy Café. To avoid bankruptcy his council is merging with neighbouring Taunton Deane. “It is a chipping away of what has been established over years that causes problems in our environment… when they turn the tap off funding.”

The former mayor of Dulverton and fellow district councillor Nick Thwaites warns that the “slow creep” of austerity – “when the pillars the town depends on are removed one by one” – is difficult to reverse. This is why, he says, “you have to fight each removal as if it is much bigger than it first appears”.

Parents at Little Owls nursery are doing exactly that. But the damage may have been done. “They are stripping the rural community of everything it’s got,” says Richard Eales, treading over his dogs as he prepares to head back on to the road. “How are we going to survive here?”

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This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum