More than 2 million people watch the popular BBC show Escape to the Country. In 2012 there was a net migration of 40,000 people from urban to rural areas in the UK. Yet, the population of our towns and cities continues to grow more quickly and one estimate predicts that the UK population could be 92% urban by 2030. 2011 census figures for England and Wales show that 81.5% are already urban dwellers. The UK is already one of the most urbanised countries in the world (33rd out of 222 – http://bit.ly/2dAXCjA – Uganda and Burundi are the most rural; India remains predominately rural at 186th) but the global trend means more countries are rapidly becoming more urban creating one of the biggest social changes in history and putting pressure on urban services as well as on rural livelihoods. In developing countries, urban slum dwellers now often face levels of deprivation even greater than those in the villages they came from. The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations (http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/commission/Oxford_Martin_Now_for_the_Long_Term.pdf) highlighted urbanisation as part of one of its key “megatrends”, saying that by 2030 more than 2 billion people could be living in urban slums.
In spite of our love for the countryside, more and more of us seek the prosperity that towns and cities seem to offer, pushed by rural deprivation and pulled by the bright lights of hope and opportunity. Unfortunately for many the urban dream is no more real than the rural idyll. In an effort to have the best of both worlds (or driven out of the cities by ballooning house prices), millions have now become commuters, spending hours every day in trains and cars. At the same time, young people in rural areas are being priced out of the housing market by escapees and holiday homes.
In developing countries, authorities know that city infrastructures are at breaking point but often don’t want to improve services for the urban poor for fear of increasing the attraction of the cities, leaving millions of children without access to essential clean water, sanitation, health and education. As climate change accelerates, sprawling urban settlements in coastal cities and on floodplains are vulnerable to weather related disasters, while rapidly increasing urban populations are dependent on food supplies from rural areas burdened by drought, floods and deprivation.
How can we find a balance through which people can flourish with dignity, resilience, rights and opportunity in both urban and rural areas, be it in the UK or in developing countries? We have to tackle the related problems of poverty, inequality and climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals show us the way but determination, political will, public and civil society action and huge investment will be needed. Goal 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Other goals address wider issues of climate and sustainability, equity and agriculture, but there is no specific goal to enhance the lives of rural dwellers who still number some 3 billion.
In the UK the debate about the countryside has been sidetracked and dominated by arguments about foxhunting, or else focused more on “protecting” the rural environment than developing it sympathetically to ensure sustainability, prosperity and opportunity for those who live in rural communities. Many of those communities are fighting their own battles with local campaigns and initiatives to maintain their shops, post offices, pubs, village halls and public transport and to build high speed broadband.
I grew up in towns and cities until I was 23 but have lived in the countryside ever since (apart from 3 years in Nairobi). For most of that time, I was a daily commuter into London. Now I am a full time rural retiree. I love the countryside and especially my favourite area of the Welsh Marches – one of the most sparsely populated and beautiful parts of the UK. I am a happy escapee but I know well that the rural way of life is not idyllic and can be a struggle for many.
According to research carried out by Loughborough University, on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the cost of living in rural areas can be significantly higher than in our urban centres. In fact, figures from 2012 estimate that a family with two children living in a remote hamlet in England often need £80 more per week to get by than their city counterparts, mainly due to higher travel costs and more expensive energy bills.
Fuel poverty is a special problem, with rural dwellers suffering far more than their urban counterparts:
Broadband speeds are half those of urban areas and for some still close to non-existent. Public transport is often minimal. Many village schools are struggling to remain viable (the language of “choice” in health and education is largely an urban phenomenon). It is often impossible to get a mobile phone signal (note that coverage figures always cite percentages of population rather than geography – there are still large areas without 3G access), for some reason it seems harder to recruit GPs for rural practices, it is expensive and time-consuming to get to hospital if you need to. It can be a challenge to live a green lifestyle when you live down a country lane that doesn’t get gritted in winter and there is no public transport (4 wheel drives can be a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice).
Yet, for all that, health indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality are better in rural areas, crime is lower, and people living in rural areas tend to be happier and less anxious than their urban counterparts (http://bit.ly/2dhYPfU) despite their lower economic prosperity. But that shouldn’t allow political leaders to ignore the problems of the countryside. Globally, as well as in the UK, policy makers need to stop thinking as though everyone lives in cities. We need to work to improve the quality of life in the cities, making them greener, more liveable, more resilient and more sustainable at the same time as providing support for rural infrastructure and services and encouraging investment in rural enterprise. Interestingly in the current Brexit climate, these are precisely the kind of interventions being undertaken through the Rural Development Programme (RDP) for England (and equivalents for the other UK countries). This programme was adopted by the European Commission last year with a budget of 4 billion Euros (3.5 million of that from the EU budget)( http://bit.ly/1yKrFTn). Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t allow our own government to further disadvantage rural areas by cutting this vital investment.
The escape to the country (or the return to the country) will certainly remain a popular aspiration for many, but if our rural communities are to remain vibrant and viable policy makers need to start paying more attention to supporting services, income, employment and infrastructure. Economic and social development is needed in rural as well as urban areas, domestically and internationally, not to preserve a fictional ideal of the countryside but to build a new balance where rural livelihoods and urban wellbeing can both be enhanced and where everyone can enjoy the beauty of our incomparable landscape.