It’s easy to think of high rents and poor quality homes as an issue confined to Britain’s cities – but a new book sheds light on how the situation is just as bleak in rural areas
Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. Over the course of this week, we will be celebrating the good that is happening all across the country – the culture and the creativity, the artists and the activists, the positive forces for change. But we will also be confronting the reality that life is getting increasingly challenging for British youth, and that Britishness itself is in flux, or even crisis. Stay with us as we lift the lid on modern Britain and ask whether this really is a horror nation.
When we talk about the housing crisis that grips the UK today, London is perhaps the most familiar example – images of tiny flats crammed on top of each other, curtains that partition one bedroom into two (where dwellers pay £1,950 for the pleasure) and renters fleeing the city for cheaper pastures illustrate the impossible conditions that today’s rental market has created.
But there is another side to the housing crisis, which Rebecca Smith highlights in her debut book, Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside. In the same way that demand outstripping supply is putting pressure on city dwellers, Airbnb, second homes and landowners – be that the one per cent or companies like Tesco and BT – are creating a shortage of affordable homes in the countryside, and it’s forcing locals out.
Drawing on her own experiences living on a country estate and her family’s working-class heritage, Smith explores how insecure housing has shaped the countryside for centuries and how ‘tied housing’, where homes are attached to jobs, has long been commonplace.
Part memoir and part historical document, what emerges is a love letter to life in the countryside and a distinctive rural working-class identity. As Smith and countless others attest, rural life may be challenging, but it’s a lifestyle worth defending. We spoke to Smith about how youth culture is different in the countryside, how Airbnb is impacting regional communities, and how her rural childhood shaped her understanding of social class.
In your book, you describe how precarious housing has existed for hundreds of years in the countryside. Why do you think the subject is getting so much attention now?
Rebecca Smith: People can’t afford to live and work in a rural area, in the same way that the coal miners, slate miners and forestry workers couldn’t if they didn’t have a house attached to the job. If you lost a job, you lost the house too. Now it’s exactly the same story, even though it’s 200 years ahead. On the Isle of Skye last year, something ridiculous like 1,700 jobs [were vacant], and for most of them it was because there was nowhere for the workers to live.
Some rural communities are doing very well at trying to fix that. There have been different projects where the community will put in some money so houses can be built, and their workers will live in those houses – so it’s technically tied housing. There’s the local occupancy clause in the Lake District, and some places in Scotland have community buyouts, where they have more power over who is allowed to live in that area.
In the book you speak to a person who couldn’t get a house with a local occupancy clause until they’d had a child. Is there a downside to local occupancy clauses?
Rebecca Smith: Local occupancy clauses – rules that make a house stay in the hands of local people – are really useful, but they don’t always work in the way they should. I’ve known a few people where, because they don’t have children, they are at the bottom of the list. That’s not fair for young people, or people who don’t want children. There should be a much more nuanced way of looking at these clauses. People of any age without kids have a huge part to play in villages and local communities. They should be allowed a local house at an affordable rent as much as anyone else.
What impact do rising rents and Airbnb have on young people in rural communities?
Rebecca Smith: There’s definitely a place for Airbnbs and second homes, but what I found when I was writing the book is the balance has tipped and there’s now too many of them. It does seem to be young people who are suffering most, because they’ve not had a chance to put any savings down. They’ve not had a chance to go up the ladder in the workforce, and there’s no way they can afford to live in these places. It’s such a shame because this lifestyle shouldn’t just be for retirees. It should be for young people as well, because it’s an absolutely brilliant way to live.
“The parties we had were absolutely brilliant, whether they were in someone’s back garden, barn, or field. We might not go to the big city and the clubs, but we made our own parties” – Rebecca Smith
How did growing up on a country estate shape your perspective on class?
Rebecca Smith: You grow up surrounded by gorgeous well-designed gardens and these houses which are quite beautiful, but you hardly spend any time with the people who live in the big house. They were at boarding school most of the time. We used to play with the plumber’s kids and the farmer’s kids, and we had the run of the estate. It was absolutely wild. It’s not until you’re an adult that you realise how lucky we were. It really did feel like we were stepping in the footsteps of the upper classes.
We didn’t go into the big house all that much, but when they used to have estate parties at Christmastime, they would invite us. I remember the Christmas parties being really lovely, but it just feels so weird, because it’s so big and fancy. The wood is deep and dark. Everything’s so red. Everything has a different colouring to it. You know this place isn’t for you – which was fine, we didn’t want to hang out there. We had the gardens, the woods and the lake. You really felt the divide without knowing it. You knew it was there, like a forcefield.
In the book, you also talk about the Lake District’s slate cave raves, the Isle of Eigg’s record label, and ceilidhs. Did you want to highlight a different side of youth culture in the countryside?
Rebecca Smith: The parties we had were absolutely brilliant, whether they were in someone’s back garden, barn, or field. We might not go to the big city and the clubs, but we made our own parties. We used to get people coming up from Manchester to the Lake District all the time, because it was a different way of having fun. There’s something about the freedom of it. What I really liked when I was researching the rave caves was the fact that they didn’t just mention the raves – they also mentioned the sunrises on the lake and the sheep. They mentioned the scenery. I think that’s really nice, for people to experience that.
Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside is published by HarperCollins and available now.