Three new chums from the Adriatic. Don’t expect to see them outside the Co-op soon
Right folks. I have spent a week enjoying the sun, rain and fish in Venice, a place that truly is dying on its feet, albeit in a wonderfully entertaining fashion. And what do I find you lot have done while I was away? Only written Wye off as a geriatric home that’s pegging it moment by moment too.
Paul Webster, in a contribution I thought brave, well considered and highly articulate, slipped in this warning, ‘The community begins to consist largely of retirees, commuters and second-homers, without local shops and without local work. We end up as a “museum’ village”.’
Then we get the eminently sensible Alan Paterson dusting off his Zimmer frame, at an extraordinarily early age it seems to me, to declare, ‘My own view is that we should be striving to rejuvenate the village which is in danger of becoming a geriatric and dormitory settlement.’
As a mere trainee geriatric may I ask a simple question: what the hell are you old guys on?
Consider a few salient points. The average age of the population of Wye is rising at a modest rate. Er… I don’t know how to break this to you all out there, but the population of this entire country is getting older. It’s because we’ve adopted this awkward habit of living longer. Perhaps sneezing chickens will change things, but an ageing demographic is a fact of life for every community in the land. I see no evidence whatsoever that Wye is any different to any other large village/very small town anywhere in rural or semi-rural England in this respect.
Still not convinced? How about this. Seven years ago when the youngest of my offspring left Joanna Thornhill for Highworth the village primary had one class per year. Now it has two. Let me put that more directly: the school has effectively doubled in size in less than a decade. Yes, a good number of those kids come from outside Wye. But stop and talk to any of their parents in the street and ask them a simple question: would you like to move to the village if you could? I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten. They’d love to live in Wye. They don’t see it as a dying village at all. They see it as a lovely place to bring up a family, not some desiccated old folks’ home where the council come in to sweep the corpses off the street whenever the first cold blast of winter strikes.
What else can I add? Oh, traffic. Dying towns tend to have diminishing amounts of it. We’re increasingly short of somewhere to park. And house prices. They’ve been falling of late in Venice, because so many local want to flee the place and pass on their heritage to holiday let foreigners. Even with the Wye Park nonsense, I am unaware of any such trend in our neck of the woods.
The ‘geriatric dying community’ idea is a myth that doesn’t stand up to the slightest analysis. Worse it tries to paint us into the corner beloved of planners and sociologists and all those other people who think communities don’t count for anything unless they can be tagged and enumerated, labelled and stuck into some strange socio-economic grouping. In the years to come more and more people will work in disparate ways, often from home, self employed or contracted, sitting at a desk in the study or third bedroom that’s just as connected with the office as one in the office (and a site cheaper and more convenient for both the employee and the employer). All it needs is decent broadband, and that’s come to Wye (the village, if not we poor suckers up the hill) already. Building a faster digital highway into Wye is a far better guarantee of future prosperity, jobs and secure family lives than driving through an army of bulldozers from Junction 10. Although it will, naturally, make some people a lot less money.
Still not convinced? Then think of this. The planners have already had their way hereabouts. They built Park Farm and Orchard Heights, and look what happened. The centre of Ashford continues to wither away, and the queues for Tesco and Asda get longer and longer. And the traffic? How many times do we have to make the same mistake before someone, somewhere accepts the truth: the more roads you build, the more cars and jams you get, with precious little in return. You could erect ten thousand new homes on the flood plain between the Surgery and Brook and I still doubt you’d get a village greengrocer and deli back. We don’t live that way any more.
There’s only one big thing missing from Wye at the moment: a vibrant, forward-looking academic heart. And that’s missing because Imperial, under Richard Sykes, have killed it. Let’s not look to ourselves to apportion the blame for that. Of course I’d happily see the existing Wye campus renewed and proportionately redeveloped to get that back in the village. But that is a million miles away from the new town Imperial is proposing in its place.
What matters in the end isn’t some supposedly magical demographic formula to do with age profiles and a hazy outdated notion that villages only count as villages if they have the correct proportion of young to old, commuter to local, and sufficient gourmets to keep the local store in foreign cheeses. What matters in the end is something very simple and easily understood: quality of life. Young or old, we’re rather spoiled in that regard right now. We ought to keep it that way.