During this dreadful pandemic, the curve of infection in rural areas has trailed that seen in urban settings. This has given the NHS a bit more time to prepare. But above average elderly populations needing greater support, with fewer medical settings, greater sparsity and distance, has increased pressure on clinicians and care workers.
I have been impressed by strong compliance with social distancing, with market towns very quiet.
In the early days of lockdown, rural beauty spots were an initial magnet for those driving to exercise in sunny weather. This soon led police and councils to close parks and car parks..
One positive shining through the crisis is the extent of public-spirited volunteering. With many rural communities being closely knit, good neighbour schemes have sprung up in towns and villages, often involving young people whose work or studies have been interrupted, volunteering for the first time.
Rural areas have been slower in receiving broadband and even mobile phone connectivity, so the crisis is exposing real challenges. While home working is feasible for many jobs in urban areas, lack of connectivity still excludes too many in sparsely populated parts of the country. The obvious landscape attractions from spectacular topography and great views have a downside at times like this, in disturbing site lines for mobile phone masts. Fibre to the premises remains a pipe dream for most. While the introduction last month of a Universal Service Obligation is welcome, government funding through the Shared Rural Network must be prioritised as we emerge from this crisis.
Employment in rural areas is disproportionately in essential roles – hospitals and local authorities are often the largest employers in county towns. A residential care home is frequently the largest employer in a village. Those in food supply chains are also properly categorised as key workers. So primary production on farms is continuing where possible – despite immense pressures in some sectors such as dairy, and others supplying the restaurant trade. As we enter the growing and harvest season, farmers reliant on seasonal workers from Eastern Europe have looked to the #FeedTheNation initiative, sourcing 10,000 Brits to become pickers. I hope they will prevent food waste by ensuring crops are picked when ready.
Once Britain is past this crisis, the attractions of life in rural Britain may become even more evident for city dwellers, who have not had the benefit of gardens or other open space. If house prices decline in our cities, if people choose to move out, it may increase demand and prices in rural areas, but I suspect this will only happen once the current inequality in connectivity speeds are overcome. It’s no fun holding a video meeting with blank or frozen screens.
One upside from the absence of traffic on rural roads is the opportunity for local authorities fortunate to have received allocations of the government’s Pothole Fund to undertake road repairs.
Rural residents are getting more used to home delivery and other online shopping formats. So I fear for the future of our rural high streets, and survival of independent shops which have given so many their vibrancy. The speed of the Government response, through grants and job retention schemes, recognises the pressure on smaller retailers, which should help some bounce back.
As chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, I hope a greener Britain will emerge from lockdown – with less commuting, and more cycling and walking to help to reduce emissions.
Whenever we are past this crisis, government will need to look seriously at rural/urban inequalities. We must ensure rural areas recover alongside urban areas, both in health and the economy.