View from Rutland: economic tensions in England's smallest county

Everyone really does seem to know everyone else  but then there aren’t that many people to know.

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The journey from the village of Cottesmore in the East Midlands county of Rutland to the town of Oakham is four miles. It takes about 40 minutes by bus, which runs only every two hours. I lived in Rutland until I was 18 and this bus was one of several things about the area that made leaving an absolute imperative. This time, though, I’m just visiting. To an outsider’s eye, the gently rolling farmland and wooded avenues we meander through are beautiful.

Signs for the Plough, the Wheatsheaf and the Fox and Hounds slide past: pub names that suggest an ideal of rustic England. As the bus collects its passengers, it fills up with chat: who didn’t make this journey last week because they were working late shifts, what’s been happening at the depot. Everyone really does seem to know everyone else but then there aren’t that many people to know in Rutland. As well as being England’s smallest county, this is also one of the most sparsely populated, with just 38,000 residents.

Thanks to the 1975 sketch show Rutland Weekend Television, a surprising number of people think that Rutland is fictional. Actually, between 1974 and 1997 it didn’t strictly exist. Instead, it was merged into neighbouring Leicestershire, returning to unitary status 20 years ago;
and, having reclaimed its identity, Rutland is proud of it. Oakham is flocked in the county’s emblem: a horseshoe, hung legs down according to a local tradition that this stops the devil sitting in it.

Many of the town’s largest buildings belong to Oakham School, one of Rutland’s two independent schools (the other is in the county’s only other town, Uppingham). Fees for Oakham start at £5,635 a term and about half the students are day pupils. The shop windows of Oakham offer goods to suit such wealthy local people. In one, there’s a silver-plated champagne bucket shaped like a stag’s head. It costs £289.

Not many people in Rutland take the bus, and if you should need to, you’re unlikely to make it to work on time. Ownership of two or more vehicles per household runs above the national average here; getting by with fewer than one car for each adult is difficult.

The constituency of Rutland and Melton has been safely Conservative since it was created in 1983. You have to go back to the 1850s to find a non-Tory representative for the area. Travelling around the county the week after the election was called, I saw barely any sign of a contest: no posters, no placards and no canvassers on the doorstep.

Such uneventfulness means that Rutland rarely makes it into the news – until recently, when data journalists at the Daily Mirror uncovered a quirk in the most recent census. Among the twentysomething age group, Rutland is the most male-dominated county in the UK. For every 100 young men, there are just 68 young women. The website Vice even sent a journalist to Oakham to investigate: she claimed to have been “marching up and down the streets for a full day” to find six women to speak to.

She must have been very unlucky. When I visit Oakham, there are young women in the shops, young women in the cafés and young women collecting children from school. It’s not that there are no women in Rutland. Rather, the distortion comes from the three forces bases and a prison located within the county borders, four heavily male sites that easily skew the low baseline population.

What Rutland is short of, however, is working-age people of either sex, and in this it’s like many rural areas. “Rutland’s kind of for older people,” says Alicia, a Year Ten student at Casterton College. “It’s a bit boring.” Her plan is to become a lawyer, which will involve leaving the area to go to university, a prospect that – thanks to the poor public transport and the shortage of things to do outside school – she in no way regrets.

It’s not only aspiring professionals who leave. Rutland’s landscape is still a working one, and county by-laws reflect farming’s historical importance here, allowing for children as young as ten to take part in light farm or garden work. But there is little call for them to do so: agricultural employment is declining year on year. Many of the industries that once provided manual employment in the villages are diminished or gone: Ruddles brewery in Langham closed in 1999, and the cement works at Ketton has suffered progressive redundancies since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, older and wealthier people move in, drawn by the attractive countryside at commutable distances to cities such as Leicester and Peterborough. One result is that median house prices in Rutland run at nine times the median wage (the national figure is 7.6), and renting is similarly expensive.

“Young families tend not to move to Rutland, because they can’t afford to,” says Carl Smith, the head teacher of Casterton (like most of the staff, he lives outside the county). That is a problem for the schools, Smith says, which can struggle to recruit pupils despite good Ofsted reports. But it is also bad for the whole county: “For a community to thrive and be balanced in the long run, it’s worth making sure that you have a fair representation of different age groups.”

The losers will ultimately be that older population. The growth occupations of the future, as the county council’s economic strategy document points out, are in social care, providing for Rutland’s booming cohort of over-85s. The challenge will be finding these workers when so many young people can’t see a life for themselves here.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article appears in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special