John Constable has a lot to answer for. The celebrated landscape artist was responsible for the introduction of the picturesque from continental Europe in the early 19th century, a convention that still dominates perceptions of the English countryside to this day. Most visitors to the countryside expect to find something ‘as pretty as a picture’ and that picture is epitomised by Constable’s paintings. The most celebrated is The Hay Wain, in which a sturdy yeoman is seen driving his cart across the River Stour, in Dedham Vale on the Essex/Suffolk border. However, all is not what it seems.
Constable’s portrayal is not an accurate one, nor was it intended to be. It is an elegy to a lost past, which if it existed at all had long disappeared by the 1820s when the painting was conceived. The open common land across the river had been subjected to enclosure and the independent yeoman would by now have been a destitute farm labourer casually employed, if employed at all.
Conditions were so bad that they provoked extensive social unrest – the Captain Swing riots – with widespread arson, the maiming of animals and destruction of crops. East Anglia was where the rioting was most commonplace and where the authorities cracked down hardest. A picturesque rural idyll it was not.
As the 19th century proceeded poverty became increasingly viewed as an urban problem as the new industrial centres grew apace and the living conditions of the poor became only too obvious. In the countryside poverty remained mostly unacknowledged. For the rural poor Methodism provided some solace, but trade union organisation largely failed, notwithstanding the efforts led by Joseph Arch in the 1870s. Poverty still remained hidden. The poor made little fuss and slipped away to better-paid employment when they could. There was often a view that they were poor but happy; whereas the urban poor were poor and miserable.
Although there was a considerable exodus from rural areas of able men to fight in the First World War, low farm wages continued to prevail, so that this remained the economic basis of rural poverty. It took another World War to produce an extraordinary transformation in the nature of the rural economy and the demographic characteristics of the rural population.
In the long arc of this process from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s both the rural economy and the rural population irrevocably changed. And the nature of rural poverty therefore changed too.
As farm workers left the villages they were replaced by a new kind of rural dweller: professional and managerial urban residents who took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the internal combustion engine to work in the towns and cities, but live in the countryside. They were attracted by cheaper housing (until the 1960s when this price advantage disappeared), to escape from the manifest problems of urban life and to embrace precisely that picturesque vision of life in the countryside which continued to prevail in the minds of those whose only encounter with the countryside was occasionally to visit it. Two nations in one village was often the outcome.
So, the second regulator of rural change became the nature of the rural housing market. Demand increasingly outstripped supply as commuters, second homeowners, retired couples and holiday landlords comfortably outbid the locals for house purchase and as holiday lets reduced the pool of rental property. Right to buy legislation in the 1980s also shrank the amount of social housing as these properties were improved and then sold for a considerable profit. Affordable homes often disappeared completely from many communities and could not be replaced due to the stern resistance of the ex-urban population, for whom the appearance of the countryside was paramount and new housing regarded as an intrusion.
This has produced a situation in which the entire social and cultural character of village communities has changed. Villages look more visually attractive than at any time in their history, but with the change in the population many of the institutions of village life have withered away: schools, pubs, churches, post offices and shops. They were followed by the decline of rural services – transport, health and so on – and the non-existence of others, most recently the access to broadband communications.
So, the sum total of all of this is that the nature of rural poverty has changed. With agricultural employment accounting for less than 5 per cent of the rural labour force, farm wages can no longer be regarded as the major cause of rural poverty (which is not to say that farm wages are high – they are not – but they are not by themselves sufficient to understand the contemporary distribution of the rural poor).
The modern rural economy is overwhelmingly a service economy and primary in this is tourism – or hospitality in the cosy modern idiom. Unfortunately, this is also a source of poor pay and conditions. The myriad of cleaners, shop assistants, catering staff, bar staff and so on are beset by
A completely arbitrary example is Evesham in Worcestershire, a once-prosperous market town that has fallen on hard times. The modern shopping mall is almost empty, high street shops are boarded up and among those that remain, takeaways, charity shops and nail bars predominate. And yet just up the road there is Broadway, an archetypal Cotswold village and a honeypot for visitors. Is this a coincidence?
Some things have not changed. The rural poor are mostly scattered in small numbers, are not organised and so remain unnoticed and unreported. They do not disturb the idyllic view of rural life which has prevailed since Constable was painting 200 years ago. If levelling up is to be at all meaningful it must apply not only to north and south, but to the poor within and between rural communities. This makes this new study of Rural Poverty Today even more timely and relevant.