Hinterland - Friday, 12 January, 2018

This week: something of a focus on rural homelessness, the threat of library reductions to the work of John Clare, cauliflower “steak”, mea cupla and rural energy costs and the relative merits of a tourism tax.
We have now also confirmed the two speakers for the first in our new series of rural seminars – to be held in Stafford on 12 February where Tom Bell of UCLAN will be talking about their digital health initiative in West Cumbria and a rep from PHE (West Midlands) will be doing a teach-in on how to access detailed health data at very small geographical levels.
As always, to book your place please email events@sparse.gov.uk
*         *          *
Hilary Mantel and Alan Moore voice ‘grave concerns’ for John Clare archive

John Clare is a rural hero of mine. I found this story very worrying. He led a desperately sad life but is a fabulous understated inspiration for anyone who loves rural England. That’s why I understand the concern of these celebs. If you have never read any of his work I suggest you spend 5 minutes recharging your battery with “June”. This story tells us:

Hilary Mantel, Alan Moore and Simon Armitage have joined authors raising “grave concerns” about the custodianship of the poet John Clare’s manuscripts in advance of major planned cuts to the library service in Northamptonshire.

The 19th-century nature poet was born in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston to illiterate parents, and worked as a labourer. Known for works celebrating rural life, including The Shepherd’s Calendar and Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, a large collection of his manuscripts, letters and books is housed at Northampton central library, as the John Clare Collection. Authors and academics led by Simon Kövesi, editor of the John Clare Society Journal, have written to the Guardian to voice concern that the collection will be hit by the swingeing cuts expected for the region’s libraries.

Northamptonshire county council, which is looking to make £115m savings in the next four years, is currently consulting on the future of its library service. Three options have been proposed for the region’s libraries, each of which will see at least 21 of its 36 branches closed. The consultation closes on 13 January.

Although Northampton central library is not threatened with closure, Kövesi and major names including authors Michael Rosen, Philip Pullman and Andrew Motion, as well as Clare’s biographer Jonathan Bate, fear that the plans will see the branch “hugely impacted by reductions in the number, seniority, qualifications and experience of staff that will be retained in that library”.

“Many staff in this library – not mentioned in your plans – are threatened with redundancy or an effective downgrading of their post, no matter what option is chosen,” says the authors’ letter. The letter was also signed by Toby Jones, who played Clare in the 2015 film By Our Selves, the film’s director Andrew Kotting, and by the comedian Josie Long, who performed a standup show about the poet in 2013.

Bath revives plan to impose tourist tax

I am sure this issue is being at least considered in a number of rural tourism hot spots. This story tells us:

The city of Bath is planning to lobby the government for the power to charge its many visitors a tourist tax.

A levy of about £1 or more could be added to the accommodation bills of the million or so tourists who stay in the Georgian city every year.

Councillors see it as a way of raising extra cash in times of austerity, but many hoteliers are reluctant to charge tourists, believing even a small additional cost will put off some visitors and claim such a scheme would be difficult – and expensive – to administer.

Bath has long considered raising a tourist tax but had previously been told by Westminster it would not be allowed to.

After it emerged at the end of last year that Birmingham might be given the go-ahead to impose a levy on visitors to help pay for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Bath decided to revive its plan.

What’s behind the quiet rise of homelessness in the countryside?

I have two stories about rural homelessness this week – both equally fascinating. This one tells us:

John Gray, 50, has always lived in the countryside. As a manual labourer he never learned to use a computer, which made it hard when he first applied for benefits. Gray became homeless after suffering a mental breakdown; when he was released from the hospital, he had nowhere to go.

Some of the barriers to Gray accessing help relate to this rural setting. Public transport is expensive: when Gray first signed up to receive universal credit once he got settled in at the Dairy House, he says he spent £67 on buses to his allocated Job Centre in Bath, because they couldn’t process his claim at one closer by. Advisers in the Citizens Advice Bureau in Shepton Mallet report sending people to court in taxis for fear they will end up unfairly prosecuted, with no train early enough to take them.

The Department for Communities and Local Government does not recognise rural homelessness as a separate problem. A DCLG spokesman says: “Tackling homelessness is a complex issue with no single solution, but we’re determined to help the most vulnerable in society, whether they live in towns, cities or rural areas.”

However, in rural areas, homelessness feels very different. Paddy Johnston was discovered by Dairy House staff on one of their early-morning scouting tours. He describes how he gradually found himself living rough in ever-more isolated places, fearing groups of men coming out of pubs drunk and rowdy.

“You fear retribution for sleeping rough – people aren’t very nice,” he says. “If you go into the countryside, you’re sort of away from all that.”

But there are elements that make countryside rough sleeping dangerous, too. Johnston mentions run-ins with unhappy farm owners after, unbeknown to him, he had pitched up on their private farmland. Whether in the countryside or a city, he says: “Generally, you’re in hiding.”

Regulator sorry for not capping UK consumers’ energy bills sooner

Bearing in mind the energy premium for rural dwellers this article will be of interest to Hinterland readers. I wonder how much attention the regulator pays in its thinking to the process of rural proofing?

The head of the UK energy regulator has said he will not receive his bonus, as he came under pressure from MPs who accused him of being a passive bystander and failing to prevent millions of customers from paying over the odds.

Dermot Nolan said he would not get his £15,000 bonus this year as he admitted he had not acted quickly enough to help households get off the most expensive tariffs or impose price protections for them.

The chief executive of Ofgem apologised to vulnerable customers for not capping their bills earlier. He also said the decline in the percentage of people on poor-value default tariffs had not been as dramatic as he hoped.

Rachel Reeves, the chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, said: “It’s not about what you hoped for, you’re the regulator for the energy companies. My children hope for lots of things from Father Christmas; they can hope, they don’t have much impact on what Father Christmas delivers in their stockings.

“But yours isn’t about hope; you are the regulator, you are the person who is delivering or supposed to be delivering on this. The whole language you use is like a bystander, rather than an active participant in the market.”

Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, said: “Your testimony sounds so incredibly passive. Do you ever roll your sleeves up and really get stuck in? I don’t see any evidence of that.”

Nolan replied: “I apologise if I seem passive, I honestly do not feel passive … I wish we had moved earlier in putting price caps in.”

We need a national strategy to tackle rural homelessness

Some very concern stats for those interested in rural housing, or the lack of it, here. This story tells us:

Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled, with 4,137 individuals recorded as rough sleepers in autumn 2016. New figures due to be released later this month by the Department for Communities and Local Government are not expected to show any improvement; if anything the figures are likely to show a worsening situation.

Homelessness is not confined to the streets of towns and cities. Our recent research reported a 42% increase in rough sleeping between 2010 and 2016 in predominantly rural areas and has highlighted the particular challenges associated with being homeless in rural areas.

In rural areas, shelter is limited and emergency hostels are rare, with individuals reporting sleeping in tents, barns, cars and outhouses. It can be harder to access support services provided by councils and charities; communities are more isolated and public transport is often infrequent and expensive. Outreach work is also more of a struggle for professionals working in remote locations, where resources are stretched and where there are often concerns about the safety of lone workers.

These challenges increase during bad weather. Severe travel disruption can cut off entire rural communities, preventing people from reaching more sheltered locations, and essential shops and services. Plummeting temperatures are more keenly felt in the absence of the residual heat of urban centres.

If central government is truly committed to reducing homelessness, as legislation passed in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 suggests, it must devise and implement a new national homelessness strategy that includes a thorough assessment of the scale and nature of rural homelessness.

Marks and Spencer pulls its cauliflower ‘steak’ as supermarkets urged to cut down on trendy pre-prepared ‘clean eating’ veg

I thought the idea of cauliflower steak sounded appealing. I also wonder whether notwithstanding it being expensive any of the value was passed onto those who grew them? If so this casual criticism is  a shame. If this sort of innovation also encourages more people to eat veg lampooning it is also a shame. Still in these days of vicious social media its easy for organisations such as the often unfairly maligned M&S to drop behind the parapet and move on. The story tells us:

Supermarkets have been urged to halt the trend of packaged vegetables after cashing in on the ‘clean-eating’ craze as the government and campaigners warn of an increase in plastic waste in our seas.

Marks and Spencer was forced to stop the production of its ‘cauliflower steaks’, after there was widespread backlash over the ‘excessive’ plastic packaging and the inflated price.

The shop was criticised on social media after a shocked customer pointed out that their £2.50 cauliflower ‘steaks’ are simply sliced cauliflowers sold in excessive packaging. She commented that at her grocery store, one can buy a cauliflower for a little over 60 pence. Marks and Spencer sells a whole cauliflower for a pound.

A spokesperson confirmed to the Telegraph that the packaged cauliflower will no longer be sold once current stock runs out because of complaints over packaging and price.

Dieters have also been told to prepare their own food instead of choosing the “lazy” pre-prepared vegetable option, especially as stores capitalise on January’s ‘clean eating’ and ‘veganuary’ trends by expanding their packaged vegetable lines.


Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.