Escape to the Country
by Bill Hartley
There is elation in the town of Darlington because the local cattle market may be moving. Darlington might be best known as an old railway town but its roots lie in agriculture, serving both County Durham and North Yorkshire. The cattle market has been there for 140 years, longer than the houses which now neighbour the site. Admittedly on market days it is a smelly and noisy place, difficult for lorry drivers to get into from the narrow streets nearby and there may be a good argument for getting it out to a more accessible location. Everyone in officialdom, from the town’s MP to the local council, seems to think so and media reports reflect this, with, it would seem, no dissenting voices.
That said, a link to the agricultural life which surrounds the town will be lost. Interestingly, no-one seems to have considered the economic impact. For example, farmers may have other business to conduct in the town and spouses can travel with them in order to shop. Arguably the council should have considered this since Darlington is a town which has recently lost its Marks & Spencer and the House of Fraser store is under threat. In terms of retailing, the only visible growth is the number of coffee shops.
It’s not only in a town that no significance is attached to severing the link between agriculture and other human activity. This view extends out into the countryside where for some incomers, farming is an alien and objectionable industry. In recent years there has been a good deal of infilling by new housing developments in the villages of North Yorkshire. For example, where I live a parcel of land was sold some years ago and is now filled by a small estate of houses built in the rural vernacular. It’s a cross between an architect’s vision of Yorkshire traditional mixed with small town USA. The front gardens are free of fencing which creates an artificial feel, rather like a film set where the young Judy Garland might be meeting Mickey Rooney. Affordable housing it isn’t and one is struck by the sheer lifelessness of the place.
The pressure to increase house building hasn’t gone unnoticed by farmers. Unusually, there are two farms situated in the village. One undertakes dairying on a large scale, the other arable. Clearly these are brownfield sites, no pun intended and therefore have development potential. Independently of each other, both farmers put in applications for planning permission to have their farms replaced by housing. One even employed a consultant who in a wonderfully ham-fisted attempt to get villagers on his side undertook a mail shot. On the cover was a picture of the farm’s grain silos photographed in a bad light. Imagine the village of Karlstadt looking up at Castle Frankenstein in a Hammer film.
Over the years, a village will evolve organically and new houses are part of this. It’s the way the developers go about the job which is so depressing. We either end up with the aforementioned faux rural enclave or a suburb in the country. These seem to be the only way that developers know how to build. There is no sense of inserting a new development sympathetically since of course the overall aim is to maximise the number of houses on the plot. Real rural dwellings tend to use up too much space. Paradoxically, the rural life which draws people in is what some discover they don’t particularly like.
Inevitably only one planning application succeeded. The one that did was approved by the planning committee on the basis of it being a ‘better fit for the village’. Underpinning this decision were the views of ‘local’ residents. Those who commented had clearly given the matter a great deal of thought pointing out that access to such amenities as school, shop and pub would be easier since ‘it wouldn’t be necessary to cross the road’. In addition to this careful assessment was a view that it would eliminate smells believed to be coming from the dairy farm and reduce the traffic flow caused by tractors.
Put together this illustrates how detached some people are from the rural environment around them. The smells they complain of emanate not only from the relatively benign cow muck stored in tanks before disposal. Beyond is a major grain growing area and each Autumn, tons of manure is ploughed into the farmland. This won’t cease. Indeed, farmers also use human waste, heat dried but as soon as it gets wet the smell of sewage travels and is far worse than anything else from a farm. Also modern prairie farming requires huge machinery and at harvest time tractor traffic is unceasing; something else they seem not to have noticed. Some of these machines are so large they have to be led by an escort vehicle for safety reasons.
In short, we live in the middle of a vast agricultural area and the loss of a single farm won’t change anything. As if to emphasise how out of touch some people are, including elected representatives, a local councillor was quoted as saying, ‘People don’t want farms in villages, with cows mooing, flies and smells: villages are for commuters’. Agriculture may not be a large employer of direct labour but indirectly many people are dependent upon it for work, such as those who cut hedges, repair roadways and maintain buildings. Most live locally though often in a council house rather than a new build. Anyone who involves themselves in rural life will soon appreciate the spin off in employment terms from agriculture.
The farmer whose application was unsuccessful has decided to implement his own change of use plan. Presumably he is scaling down activity in anticipation of selling the land, since there wasn’t much point in doing anything to the place. Those silos will continue to stand empty and rusting. Beneath them though, he intends to start a 250 head pig unit with more to follow. The signs have already gone up. They ain’t smelt nothing yet.
William Hartley, a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service, writes from Yorkshire