The Roadshow came to Maer Village Hall on 2 December and was attended by residents of Maer village, Blackbrook and Willoughbridge.
Maer village has just 24 houses. That makes it one of the smaller settlements in the Neighbourhood Area, which had a total population of 2,468 at the last Census. And that is just 2% of the population of the borough, and one tenth of the population of the entire rural area. Although the borough of Newcastle is dominated by the rural area (80%–20%), the borough as a whole is classed as urban and 80% of the population live in the urban area.
Change is inevitable
If there is just one thing in life that is constant, that thing is change, and change in land use over time is very well illustrated by historical maps. Our area has changed greatly in the last 200 years, and change is set to continue. That change can be on our terms or on someone else’s terms. Whose shall it be?
Our Neighbourhood Area faces five key issues: housing and population, services, transport, employment, and environment. But we cannot consider them in isolation. These five issues are all inseparably intertwined.
Housing and population
We need to understand the nature of the rural population, which has changed beyond recognition in terms of its composition. Where once it was dominated by people engaged in agriculture and supporting trades, it is now highly urban dependent and commuter based.
- The mechanisation of agriculture = reduction in the agricultural workforce = the taking over of farmworkers’ cottages by migrants from the city.
- The green belts, which were originally created to contain urban sprawl, are now like corsets around their urban areas and force housing for growing urban populations out into the open countryside.
- Financial pressure in the agricultural sector leads farmers to sell off their land to be used for housing for migrants from the city.
And so we have a situation in which rural areas are used as dormitories for urban populations and there is no suitable, affordable housing for people in lower-paid, locally based employment. That’s the problem that our Neighbourhood Area faces.
Where different generations of a family want to be close together granny flats can be a means to bring a younger element into the home. But that won’t solve the problem of providing affordable housing to support local employment and services in rural areas.
There is a mismatch between the services available in the rural area and the needs of its growing population.
On the other side of the coin, a heavily urban-oriented, commuter-based population turns its back on local services in preference for the town.
When the services are not available, even the locally oriented, non-commuting population are forced to go elsewhere. In this way the stimulus for local services to grow is weakened. (But we all agree that the doctors’ surgery needs to open in the afternoons! And Aston, please note, local children can go to school in Woore.)
The lack of affordable housing also impacts on the ability of local services and businesses to grow and thrive, because they need access to a pool of employees.
Unless we can ensure the viability of our Neighbourhood Area’s settlements by helping local services and businesses to thrive and serve our local population, rural life in this area will die.
It is a question of sustainability.
Like housing and population, transport is a mega issue.
Our roads, lanes and footpaths are the same ones that were in use 200 years ago, but whereas once they were cart tracks, now they are transit corridors and commuter routes for heavy trucks and fast cars.
Our roads and lanes which even 40 years ago were safe walking routes are no longer safe. Many routes that we walked and cycled as children are no longer an option to use, and where the ‘A’ roads do have grass verges they are often no longer maintained in a walkable state.
Fast, powerful farm vehicles towing large machines or huge trailers travel big agricultural miles and pose a hazard to other road users. Cars go too fast. Horse riders are hazard – and a nuisance because they don’t (or won’t) clean up. Even cyclists, who we thought were safe and clean and green, are a hazard – they’ve forgotten how to use their bells.
Public transport is diminishing and its cost is prohibitive. People would love to use the bus for all the conveniences that it has to offer, and Maer people do use it (the half-mile walk to the bus stop is not a problem for them) – but the expense means that daily travel to work by bus is simply not an option.
The lack of public transport means that local attractions such as the Dorothy Clive Garden are not accessible to people without cars.
Public transport is an issue that we have to look at in terms of getting around the rural area, not just in relation to travel into town.
What will the effect be in the countryside when there are driverless cars on our roads in 10 to 15 years from now? Then everyone, even children, could have a car and the volume of traffic our roads would become even worse.
On the other hand, private car ownership might diminish because car-hire apps would enable us to hire a car whenever we needed it. Some cities already operate car-hire pools. Even in some rural areas enlightened and progressive parish councils have set up car-hire pools for local residents.
And what about the ‘HS2 effect’? Phase 2a is now planned to be completed by 2027.
Employment affects transport. The heavily commuter-based population of the rural area use the A51 and A53 as transit routes through the area, and the lanes as ‘rat-runs’.
How can we turn the commuter tide?
People who work in professional services are moving into the rural area. They either have their own businesses at home or work from home for their employers.
But the facilities are inadequate for growing and successful businesses. The internet should improve when high-speed broadband is up and running. Mobile coverage is patchy and generally poor. There are no conference and meeting room facilities, and nowhere for visitors to park.
When the time comes for a successful and growing business to move out of the home, where is it to go?
And if growing businesses need employees, and if rural employment is to be sustainable, we need accommodation. Back to the issue of population and housing.
The bottom line is that if the services and facilities for businesses are inadequate, people will go elsewhere as their businesses grow, where they can find the services, facilities and workforce that they need.
The environment’s the reason why we live here. We need to protect our environment.
We need to make our centuries-old walking routes safe once again, and to reduce the dangers from hazardous activities.
We need to identify the historical, natural and geographical heritage assets of our Neighbourhood Area and ensure their protection. And we need to identify those assets that have not yet been afforded recognition and protection.
We need to share our environment with the urban population for recreation and leisure, but to do so in a way that will protect it from harm.
We need to provide services for our urban visitors – public transport, car parking, refreshment and picnicking facilities, signposting and well-marked footpaths.
Our environment is our Neighbourhood Area’s greatest asset. We have to demonstrate its value and put it to work in the service of the borough’s wider population.