Lure of the rural idyll: In search of the good life

Families are flocking from the cities, seeking the tranquil pleasures of life in the countryside. But often it is too good to be true, and some pay a hefty price. Maxine Frith and Oliver Duff report
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The Independent Online

The history of Amberley, a village of farmers' cottages, dry-stone walls and stunning panoramas across the heart of the Cotswolds, stretches back some 13 centuries. But a new chapter has been written, with the growing influx of city dwellers to this slice of the Gloucestershire countryside. BMWs and 4x4s with baby seats vie for parking space at the edge of the winding, wooded lanes.

Typical of the new arrivals is Susie Page. She moved to the area 18 months ago from Islington, north London, with her husband Simon and their daughter Scarlet, six.

Weeks later, Mrs Page, 40, gave birth to Stella. "We couldn't bear bringing up the kids in London," she said. Mrs Page works for an antique dealer in the capital, a 75-minute train journey away, two days a week.

"It's fine when you don't have children but we wanted them to grow up somewhere with the space, the beautiful views, the friendliness. Amberley is wonderful. You can leave them to play on their own. In London you have the galleries and cafés but we had guys charging around on motorbikes outside and if you challenge them they threaten you."

She is not alone. More than 105,000 people moved from urban to rural areas last year, the Government's Commission for Rural Communities has found. Many were no doubt attracted by lower rates of crime, cheaper housing than the cities and the idea of a countryside idyll where everyone knows their neighbour.

The commission's State of the Countryside report, published yesterday, estimates that migration into rural areas will increase by 18 per cent within 20 years compared with an influx into urban areas of just 9 per cent.

On a glorious day in the Cotswolds, it is not difficult to understand why. The report also highlights some of the benefits of living in the countryside.

Average rural household incomes are higher than those in urban areas, and primary school children achieve better educational standards. Rates of violent crime, burglary and vehicle thefts in villages and hamlets are almost half those in urban areas. Rural unemployment is about 3.4 per cent, compared to 6.1 per cent in large conurbations.

In a survey by the commission, only 5 per cent of people living in a village said they would prefer to move to a city or large town, but 29 per cent of urban residents hankered after rural life. Fewer than one in three city and town dwellers said people in their area tended to help each other, compared with almost half of countryside residents.

But the report also tells a different story, of a dark underbelly of rural England where there are rising rates of poverty, social exclusion and isolation from key public services. Social campaigners say that rural poverty is often less visible than urban deprivation. Well-tended village greens belie the fact that many residents may be as badly off as those on a notorious London sink estate.

More than 900,000 rural households - one in five - are classed as in income poverty, a rise of 35,000 in two years. Twenty per cent of farm businesses made a loss last year and reform of European subsidies could add to agricultural poverty. And skilled jobs are in short supply.

John Skerratt, 62, an engineer, moved with his wife Rachelle from Leytonstone in east London ("too many sirens"). But since he lost his job last year he has failed to find employment.

He says: "I have a good CV but there just aren't any jobs for me here. I really hope we don't have to move back to the city but it is beginning to look that way."

The biggest issues facing the rural revolution - and its poor - are the soaring cost of housing and the chronic lack of affordable accommodation. Last year, the average house price in an urban area was £180,000; in village areas it neared £300,000.

Nationally, housing is least affordable in the countryside, particularly in the most picturesque areas such as the South-west, where the least expensive properties cost 13 times the income of the lowest-earning households. The report says that, over the next five years, 45 per cent of new households in rural areas will not be able to buy or even rent on the open market.

Trevor Payne, 73, has lived in Amberley since 1962. He welcomes newcomers but opposes new home-building and helped to buy a field next to his house to save it from property developers. He says: "I don't want Amberley spoilt. It is fantastically quiet and we don't want change." Buying property, he says, is a huge problem for locals in their twenties. "They just have to move out because you're looking at halves of millions. My son lives in the village but he was fortunate; I bought him the place and he paid me back."

Rising numbers of people buying second homes in the countryside are also adding to soaring prices and the decline of local services. Public transport is non-existent in some places and a third of people in rural areas said they had problems finding a cash dispenser that did not charge them for withdrawals.

Five rural areas were looked at in detail by the commission; over the past five years, they have lost 11 banks, two jobcentres, 112 petrol stations, 271 post offices, six primary schools and one secondary. The age-related demographics show many villages are struggling to hold on to their young when there are no jobs, affordable homes and good facilities to keep them.

Among children under 15, more move into rural areas than move out of them. But for those aged between 15 and 30, there is a substantial net migration out of the countryside. A surge in moves to rural areas is then seen between the ages of 35 and 39, and again between 55 and 65 as people begin to retire. One third of people in urban areas are aged 25 to 44, compared with just a quarter of their rural counterparts.

David Fursdon, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said that the projected increase in migration to the countryside, and the ageing population in villages, would lead to a collapse of the rural infrastructure.

He said: "We are already seeing the signs. The average age of people living in rural communities is increasing as people retire to their dream home. Ironically, this means higher house prices which drives out young families and reduces the need for schools. This is highlighted by the decline in public services and the closure of local post offices and shops."

He added: "This report should be looked at very closely across government, which should listen to those who live and work there; they are the people who have a real stake in whether their communities live or die."

It is not just the economic problems that concern some countryside campaigners, but also aesthetic ones. Nick Schoon, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said: "We found this report very worrying. Our concern is that, with more and more people moving to rural areas, the countryside is going to lose its unique and wonderful character and the things that make it such an asset.

"It is going to become one gigantic suburbia, with sprawling housing estates that are not in keeping with the area. Already we are seeing places become dormitory towns, where people just come home to sleep in between commuting to work."

He added: "We are not saying people should not be allowed to move to the country, or that everyone who lives there should work on the land, but we have to protect what we have. We need to stop building big, four-bedroomed executive homes that all look the same and make sure there are enough smaller homes, designed in keeping with the villages they are built in."

Some critics have portrayed the CPRE as "Nimbys" who are concerned only with issues surrounding the countryside, Mr Schoon has an interesting solution to the problems facing many rural areas. He said: "Another important thing to address is urban regeneration.

"People often move to the countryside because they think it will offer them a better quality of life and lower crime, particularly when they have children. If we can make urban areas more attractive, people will not necessarily need to move to rural areas to get a better life."

A place in the country

Katy Dunn, 34, a writer, moved from Brixton, south London, to a three-bedroom period property in a small village near Marlow, Buckinghamshire, last October, with her husband, Bill, and eight-week-old son, Salvador

"Three years ago, Bill and I moved in together and bought a two-bedroom flat in Brixton for £265,000. At the time, we were enjoying the London lifestyle and going to bars and restaurants. Then we started thinking about children and realised we weren't really living the London lifestyle any more - we used to spendour weekends driving out of London to go walking in the countryside.

"We thought that instead of spending all that time on the motorway, we would do it the other way round. We found the house we bought, for £375,000, through our walks and we thought this was a perfect village. There are a lot of chocolate-box villages in the area - and this one is really pretty, but a bit more real. It's not full of city types with massive houses, but families who have lived here for generations.

"It has a wonderful, community feel, which was definitely missing in Brixton. We barely knew our upstairs neighbours except when we talked to them to complain about the noise. There is no noise factor here except for birdsong and church bells.

"Our garden is about five times bigger than the one we had in Brixton and we are in the Chiltern Hills. We have not missed London one jot and, if we want to, we can get there in 35 minutes on the train. We have all the amenities including three pubs, a post office, newsagent and butcher's, and if we want a bit of theatre, we have the village hall next door.

"We had been looking to move before Salvador was born but it will definitely benefit him. I know all the mums in the village already and the school in the next village is excellent. I don't feel guilty about rising property prices in the countryside because middle-class people are moving out. Just because we are middle class and more wealthy, why should we be condemned to live in the city? If there are people who feel guilty, they can make a contribution to the community to make amends."

Arifa Akbar