Idyllic English countryside masks turmoil of suicide and poverty

September 16, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Nothing is so near the center of the Englishman's idea of his country as the verdant rural parts, meadows filled with sheep, silent fens and mirror ponds and grazing cows with solemn eyes, hedgerows, cottages -- and farmers who kill themselves more frequently than the idyllic picture would suggest.

That is an unexpected distortion of the traditional picture of rural bliss crafted so earnestly by poets and painters for hundreds of years, and limned more recently by real estate agents.

That image still lures the successful English businessman and ,, professional: the physician, lawyer, journalist, stockbroker. The country house, preferably a thatched one, is an emblem of success.

But for many others, happiness and contentment have emigrated from the countryside. The real scene is not soft and bright.

"Farmers, farm managers and horticulturalists are about twice more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population, and . . . suicide is the second most common form of death for male farmers aged 15 to 44 years," reads the Duke of Westminster's new report on life in the English countryside.

Possibly a quarter of the people out there live below the poverty line, and the way things are going the situation won't likely improve.

Three years ago the National Economic Development Council predicted that jobs in agriculture would diminish by 17 percent ,, to 26 percent before the end of the century. About 100,000 jobs in farming and farm related industries will disappear.

The duke -- Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor -- is Britain's richest private landowner. He always has been passionately interested in conservation and the countryside. He is high on the list of Country Life magazine's Good Dukes Guide.

His report was the work of a panel he headed made up mainly of businessmen and blue bloods who tried to describe and find the causes of rural problems and suggest what might be done to remedy them.

Mainly, the group found the countryside was suffering from the consequences of a changing population and agricultural restructuring -- that is, a shrinking job base as over a million acres are taken out of food production due to European Community agricultural policies.

As a result, younger people are leaving the villages and looking for work in the cities. Older people -- often retired, frequently commuters and always wealthier -- move in.

Owing to their wealth and style of living, the new arrivals drive up housing prices, have little need for schools, public transport or village shops and mean a reduction in the numbers of people who do need these services. When that happens, the services are withdrawn.

"The shortage of low-cost housing is the most pressing social problem in rural areas," the duke's report said. It urged the government to increase money for its construction.

Another problem stems from conflicting attitudes toward the countryside held by the longtime residents and the newcomers and what the duke's report described as perhaps a too preponderant influence by environmentalists.

The new arrivals select their homesites for the physical beauty in the counties of their choice. Accordingly, they tend to resist any attempt to change that environment, even if change, such as the arrival of an industry, would provide work to their neighbors who might need it.

"Government policies on rural areas tend to be influenced by the environmental view; the needs of country people must also be addressed," said the report.

Other recommendations include tax breaks for small businessmen already in the country and for people contemplating investing there. It suggests the growth of a timber industry on non-farmed acres.

It encourages tourism and the relocation of lawyers and architect's offices from the cities to the villages and hamlets. It presses large manufacturing enterprises, banks, haulage and construction companies to hire local people, to provide training to sons and daughters of farm workers instead of relying on commuters from the cities.

Since Parliament is not in session, the duke's report has not produced much reaction from that quarter where rural interests are more than adequately represented. Most press reaction has been neutral or unfavorable.

Nigel Spence, an expert on urbanization and counter-urbanization at the London School of Economics, suggested that the duke's committee has encountered an age-old conundrum. "It's the most frequent dilemma all [social and economic] planners meet: Trends are moving in one way and planners, such as the duke, want them to move in another."

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