Tuesday, 24 November 2009

'...scarcely a single inhabitant..'

Francis in his comment on yesterday's post links to an enjoyable but astringent folk song about Cotswold second home owners. It's a vexed subject, and I have some sympathy with both sides of the argument. As with so many vexed subjects the only fair answer begins, 'Well, it depends...'

It's in large part a question of alternatives. Incomers drive up the cost of property making it difficult for locals to buy; sometimes they don't occupy their properties throughout the year removing demand and life from the village. But it might be that without their money the local economy would have struggled, properties might have remained empty, perhaps even falling into dereliction.

Where do the Cotswolds stand? Would the area's communities have remained viable without some sort of influx? This question seems incredible to us now but depopulation was a real concern at the turn of the twentieth century. This passage from A Cotswold Village by J Arthur Gibbs (published in 1899) is illustrative:
These four villages [Winson, Coln Rogers, Coln St Dennis, and Fossebridge], were all built two centuries or more ago, when the Cotswolds were the centre of much life and activity and the days of agricultural depression were not known. When we look down on their old, grey houses nestling among the great trees which thrive by the banks of the fertilising stream, we cannot but speculate on their future fate. Gradually the population diminishes, as work gets scarcer and scarcer. Unless there is an unexpected revival in prices through some measure of "protection"...these old villages will contain scarcely a single inhabitant in a hundred year's time. This part of the Cotswold country will once more become a huge open plain, retaining only long rows of tumbled-down stone walls as evidences of its former enclosed state; no longer on Sundays will the notes of the beautiful bells call the toilers to prayer and thanksgiving, and all will be desolation. If only the capitalist or wealthy man of business would take up his abode in these places, all might be well. But, alas! the peace and quiet of such out-of-the-way spots, with all their fascinating contrast to the smoke and din of a manufacturing town, have little attraction for those who are unused to them.

Gibbs got what he asked for: these particular villages are now packed to bursting with prime examples of 'the capitalist or wealthy man of business', not to mention our contemporary 'wealthy man or woman of celebrity'. And this helped offset the steep decline in agricultural employment of the twentieth centruy: the communities saw properties occupied, work provided and money introduced.

I've witnessed myself a change in the area's character over the last twenty to thirty years. When I was growing up, Cirencester was a sleepy market town where the Royal Agricultural College loomed large and the cattle market provided a high point of the social week. Pubs in the surrounding villages were often filled with farmers and farm labourers.

Now, the RAC mostly runs non-agricultural courses, the cattle market closed before re-opening in a smaller and out-of-town venue and the majority of pubs are gastro-type establishments catering for day-trippers and tourists; agriculture just isn't as important to us as it was, socially or economically. And of course, one of the biggest consequences of this new economy is that property prices have gone through the roof.

It's not an ideal situation but I would argue that from the perspective of the poorer villager it's better to struggle to afford or find accommodation than struggle to find a job. At least with a job you have a fighting chance of establishing yourself; without work you have no chance. And there's now more work in the Cotwolds than ever before.

In the case of the village I know best, Bibury, the fighting chance is helped along by an established estate of council houses, National Trust-owned cottages such as those in the famous Arlington Row (below) where a parent has to have been born in the village to qualify for residence, and - exceptionally - a number of housing trust-sponsored affordable properties that are just about to be put into planning.

Bibury needs more affordable housing - and one hopes the planners will permit it. But not every village is even in Bibury's needful but reasonable shape. In truth, the biggest curse on the locals isn't that visited on them by the incomers, who have brought money and work into the area; it's the reluctance of planners to allow affordable new village housing to complement the increased wealth and population. This, if anything, is where the injustice lies.

I think every village should be encouraged to build one or two dozen affordable homes with local ties. God knows what obscure forces are at work to prevent what seems to me to be a wholly reasonable policy if restricted to in-fill development that retains a village's character. The Nimbyish tendency certainly. But I've also heard it alleged that Prescott was opposed when 'Deputy Prime Minister' as he feared such rural developments would foster Tory voters...

After all, it should be in everyone's interest that villages remain working, commercial communities, with the old rural ways of life continuing at their heart. There is nothing as lifeless and depressing as a dormitory village that's more or less empty five days a week, one where you have to drive miles to get anything useful. Apart from the view, you'd just as well live in a suburb. Sadly, some of the Cotswolds villages are in this state: sterile and tiresome, with no school, no shops and if there is a pub, one that's filled on weekends with the people you left London to get away from. Build some cheap houses in each of them - paradoxically this will prove the best way to retain their character and preserve their traditions.


worm said...

exactly the same stuff rings true for me and my home county of Cornwall. In my parents village, the problem is that people from up country who are on the council automatically oppose all new housing, as they want to preserve their purchased village idyll in aspic. Genuine cornishmen would rather just build houses that would allow their children to find somewhere to live.

Gaw said...

There's a real difference between conserving and preserving. The former changes to keep alive, the latter kills to keep the same. Effing preservationists drive me nuts. I would happily drive the bastards out.