Accounts of rural England published to mark Saint George’s Day yesterday made depressing reading. Swathes of countryside where villages had become moribund, the village shop, the post office, even the village pub were gone. Villages had become no more than gatherings of houses, perhaps there was a church that held Sunday services, perhaps there was a village school that at least provided some hope for the future.
Yet this is nothing new, and what else did we expect?
Thirty years ago I worked in a petrol station on a country road in Somerset on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. It was a petrol station – it sold petrol, diesel and oil, and nothing else. Petrol was 75p a gallon. The owner bought the petrol at around 70p a gallon, so there was a profit margin of 5p on each gallon sold.
The most petrol I ever sold in a six hour shift was £120 worth – 160 gallons – a profit of £32 out of which had to come my wages of 60p an hour and the running costs of the station. Some Sunday mornings sales would not even have been sufficient to cover my wages. It was no surprise when in August 1978 the station closed with deep debts – there was insufficient turnover to make it pay. I did not need to attend the London School of Economics to have learned at an early age about economies of scale, that competitive prices demanded a high volume of sales.
The plight of rural England is due to simple market economics. People will look for low prices and they will look for choice and those will be found in the places where the turnover is high, and that rules out the village shop. People will moan there is no shop in a village, when they are short of a loaf of bread or a pint of milk, but how was a shop to survive on the odd sale of something that had been forgotten when villagers were doing the weekly shop at the supermarket in the nearby town?
The pub and the post office share a similar fate. A half dozen locals sitting at the bar hardly generates the revenue needed to have the sort of premises that will attract new customers, and post offices cannot survive on selling the odd stamp, or handling cash payments to those who have not shifted to electronic transfer of their pension or benefit.
How many of those who write profiles of rural England filled with regret about a lost age buy their shopping in Tesco, drink in smart pubs, and do their banking online?
It’s no point complaining when everyone is to blame.