THERE is more to the countryside than meets the eye. Dramas like The Archers have always made out country life to be curtain-twitching and storms brewing in teacups. Cheshire is an affluent ‘shire’ but with a lot more to it than WAGs and mums driving 4x4s on school runs.
The stereotype belies a growing anxiety lurking behind the idyllic image of Cheshire’s sleepy villages, charming winding roads and tranquil lush pastures.
As in other rural parts of the UK the traditional fabric of Cheshire life is slowly being unstitched – post offices are starting to disappear, farmers going bankrupt, young people are leaving for cities.
Cheshire may be a perennial fixture on the Sunday Times rich list but as Cllr Eleanor Johnson, Barrow, points out the concerns of the county’s poorer residents are often overlooked.
She said: ‘There is a perception that all of Cheshire is affluent and yet there are hidden areas of deprivation that go unnoticed.’
In fact A 2007 State of the Countryside report found that living in rural areas like Cheshire comes with a high price tag which younger generations struggle to meet.
The report highlights an exodus of young people and post offices, along with rises in house prices and the cost of living.
Dr Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities recently paid a visit to Cheshire and believes the recurrent problems are making life tough.
He added: ‘One issue that has not changed is lack of affordable housing. This continues to be one of the most serious, if not the most serious, problem facing rural England today.’
Cllr Eleanor Johnson believes that vital services such as post offices and police officers are being gradually withdrawn and Whitehall is increasing the toll on country life.
In a letter to The Chronicle, she said: ‘Cheshire Constabulary is the worst- funded constabulary in the whole of the country. By this I mean the funding that it gets from the Government out of the taxes we pay.
‘The Government believes that the extra burden of making up the shortfall should fall on Council Tax-payers.
‘What does this tell us all? It tells me that people in rural areas are being neglected and taken for granted. I fear that despite the efforts of the community to keep Barrow Post Office open that there is an agenda of back door closure.
She added: ‘Vital bus services are being withdrawn at a time when central government is encouraging people to use public transport. It is the elderly, the infirm that are most vulnerable.
Younger people are doing their best to fight back. Indigenous businesses in Cheshire’s villages has changed dramatically over the last few years.
Farmers now ‘diversify’. Broadband and IT has made its mark on many small family-run businesses in Tarporley, Malpas, Tattenhall, Tarvin and Kelsall.
However, Cheshire’s core agricultural and dairy industries, one of the biggest employment bases, has had a torrid year with the foot and mouth outbreak and summer deluge.
Some dairy farmers like Phil Lathom have diversified and been flexible with their land. Phil who runs 500 cows worked with his father Robin and built a horse riding centre on Kelsall Hill.
‘Diversification comes about when you are not making enough money from 500 dairy cows. Milk prices were unsustainably low for me to find an alternative income source,’ he said:
Kelsall Hill Equestrian Centre, which has sporting arenas and a 10km horse trail, attracts horse riders from all over the country and has been hailed a great success.
‘The horse riding centre from our point of view had established need,’ said Phil ‘There is no doubt there are a lot of asset-rich farmers who are losing their return on investment and not making profits. To diversity you need to grow it from something small without taking a huge risk.’
Not all farms can diversify and many associated with the industry seek work in neighbouring cities.
Carl Hudspith Cheshire NFU spokesman explained that the plight of Cheshire’s farmers represents a generational struggle to earn an honest crust in a competitive climate.
He said: ‘There is a wider economic impact felt around the farming community – vets, vehicle maintenance, agricultural supplies. If the farming community is doing badly the pound rolls down the hill.
‘It has been a rotten year but there were positive signs of recovery up to that point. We were seeing an upturn in the industry. Milk yield prices were rising. Retailers are acting more responsibly. The British public are supporting local farmers and buying local produce and we respect that so there are optimistic signs there.
‘However Single Farm Payments are diminishing year on year and it is becoming harder and harder for farmers to operate with reduced subsidy.
He added: ‘Farmers are custodians of the British countryside if that were to be lost it would be very sad.’