Terence Blacker: Rural contentment without the idyll

Lessons in living come from the less flashy parts of the countryside

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With the appearance of the first brimstone butterfly of spring, and the sleepy buzz of the first bumblebee, an air of vernal chirpiness has descended on middle-class East Anglians. Their quality of life, based on what are called "key indicators" – housing, environment, health, employment, education – has been given a gold star in a new survey. Those whose local authority is Mid-Suffolk are apparently most likely to be content while seven out of the 10 most desirable regions were in the eastern counties.

It is true that polls of this kind tend to be marketing exercises, and it should also be admitted the Halifax, the mortgage firm behind this one, is not exactly a byword for wisdom and prescience right now. All the same, there is something interesting about this poll. The rural areas which feature highest in the contentment ratings are not exceptional in any way; in fact, they are distinctly ordinary.

By contrast, the most spectacularly beautiful areas of the country seem unlikely to feature in any happiness chart. Helford in Cornwall has just seen a battle between second-home owners and local fisherman over the building of a jetty. In Dorset, a development in which most properties have sold to outsiders has been daubed with graffiti – "Greed" and "No More 2nd Homes" are among the painted messages.

It is the less flashy parts of rural England which offer their own small lessons in contemporary living. The first is that, for a community to be worth the name, its residents should live there all the time rather than during the summer holidays. People with holiday homes may bring money to a region but their absence throughout the year robs it of life. Soon, surely, our politicians will have the courage to introduce taxation which will help the problem of rural housing by the simple expedient of making it more costly to have an empty holiday home.

Local things matter. If life in East Anglia is less fretful and miserable than elsewhere, it is probably because, in spite of huge pressures from big business and central government, the network of relatively small businesses, shops, community groups and enterprises has been maintained.

Yet nationally this concept of scale, of balance, has become unfashionable. Small communities have had to battle against mighty, money-led developments – housing estates, wind turbine developments, airport extensions, supermarkets. The arguments in favour of these projects is always the same – jobs, growth, facing the future. Against those great, largely unquestioned priorities, arguing the case for a balanced community or a beautiful landscape can seem old-fashioned and backward-looking.

But jobs can be found in small businesses. Bigness and growth have their place, but in country areas they can destroy the natural balance which offers a civilised and happy life. "The devils of insensitive development always have the best tunes," Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, wrote recently. "Each meadow lost seems a small price to pay for a hundred houses, until we have lost a hundred meadows. Then it suddenly seems too high a price to pay."

Seeing landscape and villages as disposable items in Britain's great march to the future is the ultimate in stupidity. These places may, in the way that they run themselves, be offering important lessons in the art of happiness.


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