TRANSPORT OF THE BLIGHT August 9, 2011Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
For those of you who live in cities, much of what follows may prove baffling, or more likely, irrelevant. But here in rural Wales the business of simply getting from A to B can prove vexatious – underlining, if nothing else, how dependent on the mercy of governments and oil companies we who live here are. In this town of some 2,000 inhabitants there are but four buses a day to the nearest town with a railways station, two of which don’t easily connect with any train I’d want to catch to, say, London or Birmingham. So most people get in their cars and drive the 15 miles to the station where, for the moment anyway, they can park for free. That, or they badger a friend, lover or family member to ferry them there and back. (The taxi option is a withering £20-30 depending on who you use and how drunk you are).
If, as many people do, you have to work in one of the bigger towns or cities within a 25-50 miles radius, then buses are hardly an option. But with fuel at £6+ a gallon and insurance costs escalating alarmingly, commuting by car adds hugely to the cost of working, and ergo, living. And although it strikes me as a false economy – if only because I don’t have a whole family to feed – many residents drive 16 or 22 miles to the nearest towns with large supermarkets instead of buying somewhat more expensive supplies (due partly to, yes, transport costs) from our local Costcutter, butcher, greengrocer, newsagent and most recently, fishmonger… all of whom have been seriously feeling the pinch since the recession kicked in and the case of the last two I fear are not long for this world. The ironmonger and baker packed it in years ago, as did the sole remaining village shops in smaller communities nearby, making more people travel more miles at more expense to bring home the bacon. And of course those hit hardest are the older folk who make up a substantial part of the rural population and who, because they aren’t able to travel to the nearest Tesco or Morrisons, are obliged to live on the minimum rations they can afford at the marginally more expensive local shops.
So there we have it: transport costs push up the price of food in small rural areas, and with a collective shrug of “Market forces, dear boy”, the government does almost nothing to compel the oil, energy and transport companies to at least keep their prices at or below inflation and thus living outside the major conurbations become much more expensive than living in them.
What the government has done is hire t.v’s Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas to advise them on ways of regenerating high streets. This sounded like a typical bit of benign window dressing until it was revealed that the same Ms Portas’s Yellowdoor consultancy earns £5million p.a. advising retail park developers how to drag custom away from town centre high streets… But then this coalition government does hypocrisy really well, just look at their reaction to the phone hacking scandal. So it came as no surprise to me that Portas’ Yellowdoor consulting operations were not mentioned in a piece in last Saturday’s Guardian on her sterling efforts of increase footfall on the very high streets that Yellowdoor regards so contemptuously.
As it happens, last Saturday’s Guardian magazine had a well researched but ultimately depressing cover feature on how Tesco never takes no for an answer when it comes to decimating existing retail townscapes and forcing people into their cars (assuming they’ve got them). Bribing town councillors, speculative ‘land-banking’ and wearing down protesters until they get their way is a long game they can afford to play and arguably, along with bankrupting all but industrial-scale farmers, must play because they must keep expanding in pursuit of ‘shareholder value’. Which is of course the capitalist mantra that, along with offshore tax avoidance and a feckless addiction to property speculation helped orchestrate the banking crises which we lowly tax-payers are all now, well, paying for. As the Guardian’s John Harris eloquently and bitterly explains, “Supermarkets have their own suppliers and support services, independent shops use local food producers, solicitors, accountants. And when any (of them) start to suffer, you get a domino effect. If we’re not careful, we will sleepwalk into a future where the Big Four (supermarket chains) represent the only choice we have.”
I know such hand-wringing for what must seem like a bygone retail age may just sound commercially naïve, but it cannot be coincidental that all of my townie friends who come to visit leave entranced at the sense of community that still – just – exists in our small town, a spirit undeniably enhanced, if not a consequence of, everyone bumping into everyone else on the high-street whilst they’re doing at least some of their weekly shop.
As for me, well not immune to a slice of hypocrisy myself, after the frustrating, countrywide search I chronicled some months ago, I’ve finally found an immaculate Citroen XM to replace my battered old estate car. It is not the relatively economical diesel or petrol-engined 2-litre version I had originally sought, but because it had been meticulously maintained during its 14 year life, I ended up buying a gas-guzzling 3-litre V6 automatic with leather interior and every option known to man (circa 1997) at a price I couldn’t really afford.
It is of course absolutely sensational to drive in the way that only hydropneumatically suspended Citroens are, and something I really, really needed to own before I peg it, but its thirst and my innate respect for the planet will, if nothing else deter any temptation to skulk off to Leominster or Ludlow for that essential tin of foie gras that my local mini-mart just refuses to stock.
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