The overused aphorism ‘more which unites us than divides’ is nevertheless apt here.
Anyone with international experience can surely see patterns of economic issues emerging within mainland Europe, the impact of which can be felt in any UK rural community, and keenly felt by small and medium-sized businesses everywhere.
Ironically, one of the most productive and absorbing EU conferences ever staged, in 2009, heralded blue-sky thinking and debate on the challenges to be faced by local economies from 2020.
If ‘super cities’ – London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong – continue to suck in mobile populations, rural communities will be depleted of their economically active demographic, with the resulting negative impact on a range of civic issues: falling school rolls, small shop closures, and so on. Anyone who has worked in or travelled across, for example, Southern India, has seen the rapid suburban sprawl around Bangalore and the impact on the elderly and disadvantaged, literally left behind in their villages.
But international travel is not necessary. Three UK villages come to mind which have recently seen their last shop close, rendering the area devoid of any street community life. Nobody walks to the shops because there are no`ne, neighbours are strangers to each other, and your newspaper and pint of milk are only available at the out-of-town hypermarket, strategically placed en route to the railway station, which whisks you into the nearest big city. The result? Your postgraduate children have little hope of local employment and are lucky if they can rent.
What does this have to do with Sheffield? Well, quite a lot. As a ‘surviving’ city, Sheffield comprises many ‘village’ zones, neighbourhoods with unique characteristics and strong identities, all profiting from close proximity to the city and the benefits on offer there. A competent transport system and an integrated relationship with the Midlands transport infrastructure – a model much in the sights of that European conference, which now seems light years ago.
Yet how prophetic and forward-thinking it was urging us to be. For those interested, all operational departments across the European Union administration (directorate-generals) are working towards an action plan to encourage local and regional small business. Initiatives will include funding support for trade and skill-set training for the next generation of school leavers, and promotion of housing and educational projects which conform to the localism agenda. If only such projects featured in the Remain/Leave campaigns, the outcome may have been so very different.
Villages and small towns in Provence, France are losing their trees (easier to maintain the roadways, and apparently the trees have tree-cancer), but also losing their young generations. In Sicily, the major of one village is selling off derelict property for 1€, on condition that local builders renovate and that new owners contribute to the bi-weekly market, even if just by making a cake to sell. Mountain villages across mainland Europe are unable to attract local doctors, as de-population happens a-pace.
Neighbourhoods like Crookes, Walkley, Broomhill and Banner Cross are models of ‘city villages’. Each thoughtless trip to a large supermarket needs to come with a health warning that, for a small change in behaviour, such acquisitions could be found in your local high street. Your local artisan workshop could be your child’s future apprenticeship, providing them with income and a skill for life.
We live with the communities we create, and although we may not be official future partners of the European Union structure, we can continue to benefit from its creative and daring future vision, supporting localism until it becomes second nature.Julia Moore