The English village that would rather be Welsh

Villagers in Audlem, Cheshire, are coveting their neighbours' better services.
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The Independent Online

The residents of Audlem don't appear to have much cause for complaint. Their leafy, canalside village in Cheshire is a picture postcard countryside idyll that regularly wins various "Village of the Year" titles.

But villagers are upset about one thing: the fact their village is in England, not in Wales.

Their English location means the residents have to pay higher prescription prices and hospital parking charges than their Welsh neighbours, some of whom live just 10 miles away.

Now, irked at their geographical misfortune, the villagers have started an online campaign to have their village become part of Wales. The campaign echoes a similar bid earlier this year to make Berwick-upon-Tweed, in Northumberland, a part of Scotland once again. That bid was launched by the Scottish National Party MSP Christine Grahame, who invited the people of Berwick to "return to the fold" after a 500-year spell under English rule.

They responded by voting in favour of a return to Scottish rule. Six in 10 residents said they would prefer to be part of Scotland again, because Scots enjoy better public services such as free personal care for the elderly and free school meals in primary schools.

The Audlem vote also focuses on concerns that constitutional reform in Scotland and Wales means people living there are now better off than those in England. Earlier this month it was announced that prescription charges will end in Wales, yet they rose in England. There have been reports that hundreds of people in England had registered with GPs in Wales so they could take advantage of free medicine.

The other concern is the cost of car parking charges in English hospitals, which can cost as much £3 for a 20-minute spell. In most Welsh hospitals, car parking is free.

Now it looks as though some living closest to the England-Wales border don't simply want a Welsh doctor or car park but a Welsh postcode too.

Yesterday, more than 200 people had logged on to Audlem village's website to give their support to the border-hopping proposal. That compares with slightly more than 100 people who are against the plans and three confused villagers who say they aren't sure which country they would rather live in.

Bob Cartwright, who is behind the website that started the poll, concedes it is unlikely to bring about any urgent redrawing of the border but says it should serve to show the Government how unhappy the residents in Audlem are at what they see as inequalities between England and Wales.

He said: "Becoming part of Wales would bring major benefits – free prescriptions, free parking at NHS hospitals and a Grand Slam winning rugby team. The major parish project to build a sports centre in Audlem would also be realised almost immediately, as every Welsh village with more than 10 dwellings has a sports centre. The poll will be seen, we hope, as a humorous way to make a serious point."

Another resident added: "The vote might be light-hearted but there's a very serious message there. It will tell politicians that there's an issue of increasing inequality between countries in the UK that needs addressing."

One person in Audlem had suggested campaigning for the Cheshire village to become an onshore island of Scotland, but it was decided that applying to become part of Wales would be more practical.

However, the suggestion that Audlem should become anything but English has already been dismissed by Alan Richardson, one of two Conservative councillors who represent the village on Crewe & Nantwich Borough Council. Asked if he supported the idea, he said: "No, for no other reason except I'm English. But I most certainly don't decry Wales or its dragon and I think they've got something right, because both they and the Scottish have got the British Government, left, right and centre, to give them freedom, which they don't give the English."

However his fellow councillor Rachel Bailey said she was "sitting on the fence" over the proposals. She added: "The poll shows what a good spirit the village has and it shows that the residents are unhappy that the Government is making decisions without consulting them.

"It also shows many villagers are thinking they would perhaps be better off being part of Wales where the Welsh Assembly might listen to them and give their views consideration.

But some visitors to the website were less sympathetic. One wrote: "This is a disgrace! Does national pride and identity mean nothing to people? For the sake of saving a few pounds, people want to abandon their great nation for a sheep-filled hole."

A system of 'medical apartheid'

It has been described as medical apartheid. Prescription charges were scrapped in Wales last year but rose to £7.10 per item from 1 April in England. In Scotland, the charge fell 25 per cent to £5 this month, as the Scots move to phase it out by 2011. The Scots already have free eye tests and dental checks, free care for the elderly, extra central heating grants and a number of drugs judged too expensive in England. In the latest demonstration of largesse in Wales, ministers have declared that all children aged from three to five should be provided with free toothbrushes and toothpaste. The medical inducements across the Welsh border are believed to account for an imbalance between the population of 2.9 million and the number of people registered with GPs in Wales, which stands at 3 million. The Welsh Assembly is now worried about "prescription tourism".