6 June 2022

The Tory heartlands face drastic poverty – Downing St must sit up and take notice

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How was your Jubilee? Here on Dartmoor, our tiny village managed to get a beacon going that scored on altitude if not output and we’ve also celebrated the 45th year of our Twinning  event with some jolly French visitors. The church bells rang. Merriment and community spirit rhymed. In other words the Full English of middle class participation. That’s what we look like to the many envious tourists who pass us by. But that’s not all we are by any means.

Rural poverty and deprivation is blighting this beautiful neck of the woods. The isolation and tranquillity that draws many of us urban arrivistes here conspires against those who have lived and worked this land for generations and have the least padding. So you’re lucky if your choice is between networked gas or oil, because out here in southern England’s last wilderness even cut wood has become expensive. That’s the alternative to tankers of heating oil struggling along our crumbling road infrastructure, with a hefty premium slapped on for delivering to this lovely remoteness.

Much of the work here is low-wage, seasonal and insecure which is great if you’re a student looking to augment your festival fund over the holidays, but something else entirely if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a place to bring up a family. Despite repeated Kremlin-value assurances over the years by government and BT Openreach, we are still littered with connectivity ‘not-spots’ stifling business, driving entrepreneurs away and isolating the vulnerable in digital deprivation. Bus services that seem to be designed around the bottom line of the council’s contractors, rather than the commuting needs of working people, add to that feeling of abandonment.

The well-insulated professionals and retirees can cope with most of these challenges. But for many ‘off-grid’ people here, now staring down the additional twin barrels of high inflation and shocking electricity rises, next winter looks truly terrifying. You can’t eat the scenery.

I spent some time exploring the scale of the problem with a volunteer at our local food bank. And by local, I mean the discreet, church porch, bus shelter larders that have sprung up almost unnoticed along our green and pleasant valley. Between January and April this year, around two dozen volunteers ensured the delivery of nearly 3,000 main meals, that’s around 172 a week. The ‘larders’ contain basic foods for those who are facing food poverty or insecurity. There’s nothing fancy in the inventory, which now includes second-hand school uniforms and basic feminine hygiene products.

It’s been going since Covid struck. While demand peaked during lockdown when people were furloughed or deterred from travelling to get cheaper supermarket food, use remains high. While abuse is possible in an anonymous service deliberately designed not to stigmatise, there seems no evidence of it, indeed the reverse – with sometimes only a small number of biscuits removed from a whole packet, for example. People take only what they need and the impression is often less than that.

When the larder started in 2020 I was told it was rare to meet any clients, but increasingly as the numbers grow, people in need are telling volunteers their stories. What is most worrying is how their stories chime with national trends – increasing numbers are in work but their wages have failed to keep up with soaring prices. It’s hard to believe that with virtually full employment in the country, a household with two working parents is reduced to charity to put a decent meal on the table. While this is not the rule, it is absolutely no longer the exception. Pride and self-sufficiency are hallmarks of rural life. What is happening here – in the Conservative heartlands – ought to alarm the Government.

Our local MP Mel Stride is Chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee. Although they weigh the Tory vote around here, my unscientific reading of the mood in my community is that those he is relying on to get him back to Westminster aren’t going to be taken for granted any longer. In Teignbridge where my village lies – a council area that comprises a fair chunk of his constituency, a third of jobs pay less than the living wage. That rises sharply outside the towns and into the High Moor where hospitality jobs are the mainstay of the economy. Gross weekly pay for low paid workers in south-west England is the lowest in Great Britain. Inflation is at 9% and likely to rise. These sums add up to a looming political car-crash that will dwarf anything Boris Johnson and his staff got up to in Downing Street. 

These hidden folk matter. While eye-watering urban inequality is in your face within a 10 minute cab ride from the House of Commons, similar levels here are camouflaged under misplaced sentiment, complacency and possibly envy. The instinct of One Nation Conservatism I subscribe to is to go after inequality and help people help themselves and their families to prosper.

But the rural communities that form the bedrock of the present Conservative majority are under pressure as never before. If Conservatism cannot speak to them or for them and change warm words into cash in their pockets, no amount of blether on levelling up or metropolitan abstractions will save this administration from the shredder at the next election.

We are profoundly lucky to live here. The volunteers that glue our little communities together on the side of Dartmoor are precious, but they are not supposed to be a substitute welfare service for decent, hard-working folk drowning in anxiety and encroaching penury.  Note to all Tory MPs today – this is the confidence vote you should be worried about. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.