One day there won’t be anyone to deliver the mail any more, and then what will the City types do? I heard this prediction more than 20 years ago when I worked behind the bar at one of the pubs here in my rural town. At the time I considered it melodramatic, but now it seems like straight prophecy.
Quite out of sight of central London — and other metropolises — the English countryside is suffering from a terrible immigration problem. These migrants don’t arrive on the back of lorries or in overcrowded boats, but in removal pantechnicons and SUVs, carrying laptops and trailing children.
Unable to afford the space they need for their second or third child in the inner suburbs of their overpriced cities, frightened/brick-rich metropolitans are migrating to the countryside to gazump their way into the housing market.
In our town, 30 miles from the capital, the average house price is 13 times the average national wage. Wherever there’s a pleasant place and housing within spitting distance of a metropolis, locals are being pushed out.
This is not gentrification, but rather social cleansing on a grand scale, and it won’t end well. As that pub-goer foretold all those years ago, able, qualified and dedicated job-holders are being displaced. Ten years ago it was bin men and classroom assistants pushed to the periphery of Home Counties life; now it’s teachers, nurses, physiotherapists. Anyone on an average wage is increasingly unable to afford to live within a reasonable commuting distance of their workplace, meaning our suburban utopias will soon become dystopias of understaffed services.
However, the greater loss is something less material: community. Community is about shared lives, informed by diversity, in age, aptitudes, attitudes, ideology, background. It is about ‘locus’, local people taking part. In the past couple of years alone, scores of well-established locals have been dislocated to towns more than 50 miles away with more affordable rents. So Reg, for instance; more than a bin man, he was a stalwart of the local boys’ footie club; or Gloria, a physiotherapist, who organised the cookery classes for single parents; or Jane, a classroom assistant who administered a book club. All have since closed for lack of replacements, while the annual fête for which Charlie, a postman, was the prime mover, has struggled since he left.
And there are hundreds more Glorias, Regs, Janes and Charlies, the lifeblood of community, all priced out by the ballooning property market inflated by metropolitan demand. Their replacements from central London haven’t the time or the inclination to commit to civic duties – and besides, their friends live in Notting Hill.
As the natives leave, so the institutions they supported begin to collapse: the Rotary, Lions, Round Table, Masons. Their fundraising creates events which form the local calendar: firework displays, duck races, music gigs, carnivals, fun days. These are experiencing rapid decline. Brendan, this year’s president of the local Rotary, told me that the average age of its members is 70, and there are few new members in the offing. These agencies of charity were designed to attract the active participation of men and women working locally, but there are no large employers left in our town and the only work the migrants bring is for domestic service, baristas and nailbar staff.
There are civic-minded volunteer types who remain, but too often they’re tied up with their own concerns. This is the grandparental generation. I live and work among them and I know how stretched they are by their own kin. My neighbour Joan, for instance, is preoccupied attending her 90- year-old mother, and helping out with the grandchildren so that their parents, aka her children, can fulfil the jobs which pay their mortgage.
There are scores like Joan who can no longer organise fêtes, hold collections, man stalls, referee sports, run WIs, Scouts, Guides. Nor have they the time to occupy the more formal roles as trustees, school governors, committee members and church councillors which enable civic engagement. The new immigrants can’t and won’t fill the gaps. They crowd the early morning trains and return post-children’s bathtime, knackered. I meet them in the gym on weekends and only the other day David, something in the City, was telling me in the locker room how he was working a 12-hour day and then on call for the other 12 hours.
With the servicing class displaced, the caring class otherwise engaged, the business class shrinking, the commuting class exhausted, there is no one to hold the town centre together.
And already metropolitan behaviour is coarsening our once-gentle town. The digital era brings with it impatience and ungraciousness — Monica, the Big Issue seller, is lucky to shift a dozen copies on a good Saturday — on roundabouts, at traffic lights, in doorways, on the pavement, at the till, in queues. Our town, along with many others, is sinking under the dead weight of dormitory-dwellers who can neither invest in its community nor participate in its life.