THE SMALL VILLAGE
By VICTOR BONHAM-CARTER
RECENTLY there has been sharp controversy in the Press and elsewhere on the subject of small villages. This has arisen, primarily, by way of reaction to some of the proposals now being drafted by county planning committees under the requirements of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. In particular, the case of Letcomb Bassett, a small Berkshire village of some two hundred inhabitants, has been given much publicity—letters to The Times, reports in several provincial and national newspapers and a short "documentary" film defending the village against the planners who are said to be bent on its destruction. Since, however, the con- troversy applies not only to Letcomb Bassett, but in some measure to every village of fewer than 400 inhabitants in Britain it is well to state the problem as a whole.
It is generally agreed that the revival of agriculture and its per- manent establishment within the national economy are essential. Since this involves a large increase in production, probably over a long period of years, something more has to be done than supply farmers with subsidies or guaranteed prices or machinery or fer- tilisers. Obviously a parallel social development must also take place in order to provide the men and women who do the work of the countryside with all the necessities and attractions of life, a lack of which has contributed to the decay of country life over the past seventy years. This means not only a sufficiency of good houses, but also all those material services and amenities which are necessary to a successful community. So far so good ; there can surely be no serious disagreement with a general policy of this kind. The divergence of opinion lies in its execution.
Now the case for the planners is this. There are, perhaps, ro,000 rural settlements in Britain—hamlets (i.e., small villages without churches) and villages proper of all sizes, many of which require re- construction or development. To carry out such a programme would, if practicable at all, take not less than fifty years and cost an astronomical sum of money. Would the results really be justified ? Instead, it is proposed to select certain key villages for development which, by virtue of their size and location, could minister to the larger needs of the smaller places and all the isolated farmsteads within a limited radius, say five miles. This would reduce the problem to manageable proportions and achieve quite a satisfactory result. At this point the opponents of the planners raise their hands in horror. Such a policy, they say, means the end of the small village No new houses would be permitted, the old ones would be condemned and allowed to fall down, if not deliber- ately removed, and in any case few people would stay, as they would be denied the material aids and benefits of civilisation ; it means depopulation and death. The small village, they emphasise, constitutes the majority of all villages, and it is the essential link between farming and the rest of the community, for agriculture cannot be adequately served by workers living away from the farm. For economic and social reasons, therefore, the small village is the core of the countryside.
That is a very brief summary of the principal arguments advanced by each side. Which is right ? To be fair to the planners, much of the evil that is imputed to them is not theirs at all, but the product of the panic fears of their opponents. The small village is not to be deliberately wiped out at all, but will simply not be developed beyond its proper capacity. This in turn will be estimated by its ability to serve the immediate needs of agriculture in the neighbour- hood. Numbers are the controlling factor, and it requires at least 400-500 inhabitants to carry the larger village institutions. Authori- ties other than planners already realise this. For example, county education committees, under the impetus of the new Education Act, are everywhere closing the one-class and most of the two-class country schools. It has become clear that a three-class primary school (for children aged five to eleven, two age-groups per teacher) of some sixty pupils is the smallest size that can be efficiently staffed and economically administered. The Church is uniting the smaller parishes to provide an incum- bent with sufficient work and a reasonable stipend. Rural crafts- men, such as the blacksmith or the sadbler, can only keep going by visiting two or three small places in the course of a week. Such instances—and there are others—strengthen the planners' contention that the larger village of 5oo-1,500 population is the right place for the primary school, the rectory, local industry and most shops supplying everyday needs. Also personal experience of the village hall and the playing-field has convinced me that they should be confined to the larger villages, since they involve large capital outlay.
As half of this is met from public funds, adequate maintenance is essential, and that is beyond the powers of the small village. There
are simply not enough people to patronise the hall or belong to or lead the clubs that use the field. Certainly centralisation can go too far, and the village colleges of Cambridgeshire, started by Mr. Henry Morris, are a case in point. A single college, which is a combined secondary school, adult-education centre and village hall, is made to serve the interests of a whole range of villages, large and small, and is kept going by a regular bus-service. In my view, this
tends to draw activity away from places that are perfectly able to maintain their own social life.
Is not there a compromise solution ? Cannot the small village be regarded as a collection of homesteads, not as a community in the larger sense ? It would provide houses for the farming people, certainly, although not necessarily for all of them. Whereas it is essential for stockmen and foremen to live on or near the farm,
',laymen, who are less well paid, can generally cycle to work from the nearest village, where their wives and children will have easier and cheaper access to school and shop. Then the small village must also have all the domestic aids possible—electricity, water, septic tanks (as opposed to main sewerage, a very costly undertaking), a telephone or two, perhaps one general shop-cum-post office, a
public house and a chapel-of-ease, although, where these things are lacking, it cannot expect priority over the larger places in their provision ; it will have to wait its turn. Of course, there is nothing to prevent small villages providing their own amenities—a small hall or meeting-place, for instance, if the demand is real—but that demand should be satisfied without public help, since inadequate maintenance may at any time turn it into a liability, and it is not right to expect the taxpayer at large to subsidise a speculation. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a correct opening for private enterprise. For everything else a visit to the nearest key village would be necessary, and this would certainly necessitate improved communications. Why should not every small village have its own bus, to take the children to and from school and the grown-ups for shopping and recreation ?
What, it may be asked, if there are no large villages at all in a certain area—Exmoor, for example, where there are big stretches of moorland with isolated farmsteads and a very few settlements ? The same principle of selection would apply. One or two places would be provided with the larger amenities, and these would play the part of key villages serving the interests of the surrounding countryside. Plainly, there should be no fixed immutable rule in this matter—that is the danger of planning—but each county knows its own problems and should solve them accordingly. The small village will certainly survive for all sorts of good reasons—economic, social, aesthetic even But it is unrealistic to demand special privileges for it, since this will only put a huge burden on the taxpayer and bring eventual disillusionment all round.