Joan Bakewell: Is our love of the countryside destroying it?

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The Independent Online

When Donald Trump proposed his grotesque development on the shores of Scotland, half golf courses, half Las Vegas hotels, the general reaction was one of abhorrence that such a vast excrescence might be inflicted on a wide and windy stretch of wilderness none of us had ever seen, let alone visited.

The contradictions are obvious: we want those vast tracts of countryside to continue being there in more than our memories or our imaginations. We want to know they are there in reality. But in truth most of us would rather live in towns. That is now true globally: more people on the planet now live in cities than in rural communities. The tipping point was reached just before Christmas.

The trend can only continue. Anyone who knows the favelas of Rio or the ramshackle townships of Cape Town can see that they have an intense and vivid urban life of their own which many find more interesting than the monotonous routines of rural life. On the outskirts of many a developing world city, the trick is for new arrivals to lay their claim by planting a group of coconuts in the sand; within a few years they will have grown into a sizeable settlement of small palms with their own shack.

A few years on, and the urban authorities will move in with sewage and street lighting. Thus does the city expand. No planning, no infrastructure, just the determination of individuals to join the mainstream of life on the planet, which is now, and will remain, irrevocably urban. It may be inevitable, but is it a good thing?

Certainly, the glories that were Greek and Renaissance culture found their expression in great city states, where civic virtues were honoured and a shared purpose gave coherence to the citizens. We speak of them with awe: think Athens, Sparta, Florence, Venice. Unhappily, along with law and commerce, art and sport, their most common shared purpose grew to be enmity to other city states and warfare. Thus, today's states of Greece and Italy. Small gets larger: another rule of global urbanisation.

Britain has been at the forefront of this growth. As the cradle of the industrial revolution, its great cities sucked in the rural poor, in their millions, to serve the factories and mills. My own ancestors abandoned the gentle calm of Aberystwyth to better themselves in the inner-city settlements of Manchester. The Victorian cities were seen at the time as full of opportunity, just as Rio and Cape Town, Lagos and Bangalore are today.

But, being ahead of the game, Britain has arrived first at the dilemmas of city growth versus rural survival. As with the Trump response, no townie wants the countryside to go under. Unhappily though, in Britain, many city dwellers still want a slice of the rural action. In seizing it, they change it. Second-homers with their 4x4s, their satellite television, their dislike of cock-crow and farmyard smells, bring city ways and tastes into the country. The countryside risks becoming a vast theme park of country pursuits laid on for the urban rich.

Happily, there are moves in the opposite direction, with farmer's markets bringing vegetables caked with good country earth to urban car parks. The widespread move to buy local produce carries hope for British farmers. But these will be superficial achievements as long as country villages lose their post offices and bus services. The countryside needs to have its own thriving centres of population, a village life vibrant and up-beat enough to keep its young people there.

In the end, it comes down to local autonomy. Back in the 1970s, E F Schumacher wrote a remarkable collection of essays called Small is Beautiful. In a television interview, he told me we could look forward to the time when Gascony, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, might all be independent civic entities. He was a thoughtful and beguiling individual, and those who heard him went away with his message echoing in their heads. But on a broader front, his ideas were indulged and then dismissed as a Utopian dream.

He would certainly get a better hearing today. Local communities and local government cry out to have their authority and powers restored. The great metropolitan centres Manchester, Liverpool, London whose own local governments defied and irritated Mrs Thatcher were dispossessed by her of their coherent and traditional role. Rate capping and the power of central government to override local planning decisions has further reduced their civic self-regard.

There is no shortage in such places of investment, and often outstanding architecture renewing city centres. But what is happening to renew a belief in our smaller market towns and rural settlements? The global move to cities gives pause for thought. The countryside mustn't just belong to the retired and the urban rich.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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