The state of the countryside today

When New Labour came to power in 1997, it promised an urban renaissance. This week, our Voice of the Countryside survey shows that British public remains woefully
unconvinced that it has delivered one. Asked where they would most like to live, as many as 80% of a sample of more than 1,100 people chose the countryside, whether inland or by the sea.

To a large extent, this is a grand endorsement of everything this magazine stands for. We have been the champion of the countryside for more than 100 years. However, even Country Life can only welcome this great a preference for the countryside over towns, cities and suburbs with caution. Only last month, the Commission for Rural Communities’ State of the Countryside report observed that population shifts are changing the character of the countryside.  Insensitive new housing developments are whittling away at its identity. As the population grows, it becomes more and more obvious that, for most people, the dream of a country existence will remain just that: a dream. As a nation, we’d better start doing something to improve the cities, where, in reality, most of us will live—and fast.

Running a pub is the perfect job

The British ideal, according to our survey, is a cottage in Devon. (A Georgian cottage for Londoners, who appear to be more conscious of architectural style.) This comes as little surprise to those of us who have noticed the soaring cost of property in Devon over the past decade. Traditionally, many a hard-pressed city worker has cherished the thought of throwing off the rigours of commuting to run a country pub. These days, when the challenges that face pub landlords can be seen in the scores that are closing every month, one might have expected some of the allure to have rubbed off the prospect: but no, becoming a publican is top of the list of occupations for people considering a move to the countryside. Perhaps it shows that the romance of the country idyll outweighs practical considerations.

Parents also cite better schools as a reason for favouring the countryside. True, a smattering of counties retain grammar schools and there are pockets of excellence elsewhere (at Wedmore, on the Somerset Levels, education is such a draw that house prices are a third higher than in neighbouring villages). However, it’s easy to forget that country parents are often stuck behind the driving wheel as they ferry progeny to school and other activities.

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Beauty, fresh air, tranquillity, space and cleanliness rank high among the desirable attributes of the countryside. Respondents believe that the countryside is generally a friendlier place than the city, offering a warmer sense of community. It may also be
a safer place to live. No surprise there. This view of rural life has been around since Virgil. But there’s a contemporary twist. The author of the Eclogues didn’t have to worry about global warming. In our survey, however, a significant percentage of our sample valued local food as a reason for moving to the countryside. Almost half of them wanted to grow food themselves. The Slow Food movement has raised awareness of the benefits of eating seasonal food. No doubt the recent rises in the price of food have also had an effect in encouraging people to grow for themselves; some of our sample may also have been fed up with the big supermarkets, in an age when the food we eat contributes as much as 29% to our carbon footprint.

Reconciled to urban inevitability

More people would like to buy a second home in the countryside than abroad. There is a taste for holidaying in the UK, and eight out of 10 people say they would prefer to go for a country walk than watch a football match. (Well, that’s what they say.) If,
in some respects, our survey seems to have been a critique, by implication, of the cities, respondents also suggest a way of reconciling the inevitability of urban existence with our growing desire for country values. They are adopting aspects of a country way of life while still living in the city. Farmer’s markets bring some fresh country air into town.

Organic food, highly rated in the survey, guarantees old-fashioned, home-grown values. British cities are famous for the handsome parks that bring green space into the heart of conurbations. This is a tradition that we can build on if the public’s yearning for the countryside is to be squared with the hard fact that, in a world preoccupied by sustainability, not everyone can live there.