Go down any single-track country road and you will find cottages dotted here and there; or perhaps you’ll only see a narrow drive that leads goodness knows where, to houses hidden down long lanes. But despite popular misconceptions, the people who live here are not usually the Damon Albarn’s of this world who have decided to leave the hurly burly of the city to allow their creative juices to flow unhindered in a rural idyll.
No, these are the people who drive the tractors at gone midnight to get the harvest in; who eke out a living catching the pests that prey on crops; or who go to work in the local town for minimum wage. True, in amongst them there are others: people not quite of rock star status but who commute to the city, run a successful business or two, and have more than adequate incomes–but they (we) are not the people who struggle in the country. There is a clear divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots and it’s only going to get wider, unless public policy grasps the nettle and deals with it.
“Would you happily wave an 11-year-old off on a dark autumn morning for their first day at secondary school, knowing they had to walk at least three miles along such roads before they got to a bus stop?”
Confession time–I’m in the Have category. My husband works in London and our family income is more than adequate. We have options, including to not have to live here unless we wanted to, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see what’s going on around me and realise that not everyone is in the same category. And from what I can see of the decimation to services, it’s only going to get worse. Far worse.
First up, public transport. There isn’t any. At least, not across many miles of unlit, unpavemented, single carriageway, 60 mph country road. Would you happily wave an 11-year-old off on a dark autumn morning for their first day at secondary school, knowing they had to walk at least three miles along such roads before they got to a bus stop? That, for some, is a reality. Those who can, drive their children to the nearest public transport, using lift shares where possible, but given the spread-out nature of such housing that’s not always feasible.
Then, once you get to the nearest bus stop, there’s the issue of how often the buses run–will the first bus of the morning leave in time to make the start of school? Often not. There are limited options and they are often inconvenient and expensive–£400 per year for a subsidised bus pass to attend sixth form may not seem like a fortune, but it is a lot of money for a family on a tight income, all the more so if they have more than one child needing to go to school.
For many, the solution is to drop out of school as early as possible. Education is only a progressive force that allows those at the bottom of the income ladder to learn their way out of minimum-wage jobs, and access university, if it’s truly accessible to all. For many it is simply not possible to stay on to complete A Levels, let alone think about studying for a degree. Many do, and that is down to their grit and determination–both on their own part and that of their families who supported them–but it shouldn’t take near-superhuman levels of self-sacrifice to obtain an education. In a modern, rich, society such as that of the UK, it should be easy. That’s (part of) what government is for – to provide such services so that everyone can have an equal start to life.
“Women are often left at home with no means of transport and unable to get to work.”
Lack of public transport in rural areas doesn’t just affect those going to school, of course. It means that it’s more difficult to get around for anyone who cannot drive, for whatever reason. Pensioners whose eyesight has deteriorated to the point they cannot legally drive, anyone who has recently had an epileptic fit, major spinal surgery, a stroke — any number of health reasons can hit someone out of the blue and stop them from being able to drive.
And then there are the families where all the adults can drive, but they can only afford one car. This often means that the car is used by the person who has got the best paying job, or the only job, and in a relationship between a man and a woman this is overwhelmingly the man (thanks, patriarchy!). This means that women are often left at home with no means of transport, and unable to get to work, even if they can find any to fit in around their family circumstances.
This leads me to the other problem with rural areas – lack of good access to broadband. It is so much harder to look for work if your broadband never gets above 2Mbps, or you regularly lose the connection altogether. Most businesses expect you to look for and apply to jobs online these days, which would seem to be a good thing for those stuck at home without transport, except it doesn’t quite work out like that. The more the rest of the country is built around the fact that the average broadband speed is now 36.2 Mbps, the more the rural poor will be left behind. There are slow broadband speeds in a few urban areas, of course, but only rural areas suffer the double whammy of lack of transport and broadband.
The government scheme to roll out superfast broadband to rural areas is drawing to a close, leaving the most isolated behind. It was meant to provide services to people the big companies would ignore, on the basis there were too few households in an area to make an expensive infrastructure project worthwhile. The problem, however, was that when the money finally trickled in it was treated as most government spending is – get ‘best value’. This was interpreted as connecting the most number of people for the least amount of money, and the money ran out before the truly remote were reached. You know that old adage of solving 80% of a problem with 20% of your budget, and the remaining 20% takes 80% of the budget to solve? Well, this was more like spending 100% of their budget on the 80%. Great job, guys.
“There’s no social justification for treating people as if they were an underclass–and that applies just as much to the rural poor as it does the inner city high rises.”
What this means, of course, is that those who remain unconnected to high speed broadband will probably stay that way. What’s that I hear you say, the companies will get around to connecting you eventually? As someone who lives in a house that has yet to be connected to mains drains or mains gas I beg to differ. We’ve been stranded.
So, does it really matter? Well, yes. Inequalities matter, and widening inequalities are a bad thing, and to be avoided at all costs–because it is actually expensive for a country to have widening inequalities, quite apart from the humanitarian angle. There is no social justification for treating people as if they were an underclass that doesn’t matter, and it applies just as much to the rural poor as it does the inner city high rises.