As Lockdown 3 continues to define our Winter like a particularly dystopian video game, the streets of Britain’s cities stand empty, shops are shuttered once again, and yet more desperate businesses face closure. Record numbers of small firms are going under, along with rafts of redundancies from larger organisations – we’ve never had it so grim. Without shops, theatres, cinemas, gigs, bars and restaurants – even the dull bustle of office life – cities are nothing but looming, darkened buildings.
No wonder Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged a second ‘big bang’ for the City of London, post-Covid. With trademark rictus optimism, he claimed that workers will eventually flock back to offices as we are still ‘social animals’ and admitted he is ‘desperate’ for towns and cities to be regenerated.
But while city living was the great dream of the Noughties, the pandemic has triggered a longing for green space amongst the locked-down flat-dwellers of Britain’s urban centres, with thousands now flocking to the countryside and the suburbs in search of fields, gardens, and a cosy office in the shed, where the commute is a ten-second stroll along the herbaceous border, rather than an hour trapped under a stranger’s armpit.
Despite the exodus, however, very little has been said about the future of the countryside itself. Already, the pandemic has dramatically damaged the rural economy – and combined with the effects of Brexit, which means the loss of EU subsidies to farmers and grants to communities, ‘out of town’ is increasingly looking less shiny chocolate-box, more abandoned biscuit wrapper.
The Public Accounts Committee recently warned that rural areas, including businesses, could be stuck with slow broadband for years, as despite bold political promises, 15% of the UK is now unlikely to have high speed connectivity by 2025. Meanwhile, the closure of rural pubs and community centres significantly affects the residents of small towns and villages. In recent years, as online shopping and out-of-town malls drain cash from high streets, small shops have vanished like Brigadoon from rural areas, while local post office and bank closures mean enormous inconvenience, particularly for older people and those on lower incomes.
Add to that a rise in country property prices, particularly in the South West – even rents in rural areas went up 5.5 per cent last year – and it’s not hard to see locals struggling to stay put as the second-homers pour in and turn traditional villages into weekday ghost towns.
The picture may be gloomy for cities right now – but when lockdown lifts, and Covid is vanquished by vaccines, the government will be thrusting cash at urban centres, all too aware of the need to re-boot the hubs of our economy. More worrying is the fact that the countryside will be forgotten: out of sight, out of mind, and out of pocket.
It’s vital our government remembers that after the worst peacetime disaster any of us have experienced, the entire country will need life support – not just the bits they can see out of the window.