The UK iteration of Wired is doing a themed issue entitled “Rebooting Britain”, kicking around ideas for changing the face of an already-changing nation for the better. Many of them could be more broadly applied to any Western/developed nation, but a few of them address issues that are somewhat more unique to the UK. For example, Britain is apparently one of the very few nations where the percentage of people living in cities is not increasing; this doubtless has a lot to do with deep-rooted notions of the romance and allure of country living that inform the English psyche, though the increasing proliferation of surveillance and petty bureaucracy in urban areas may well be a contributing factor too.
But the rural lifestyle is disproportionately expensive from an environmental perspective; people who live in the country need to drive further and more often, they need to use more energy for heating their homes, and so on. So, P D Smith suggests, why don’t we tax the rural lifestyle heavily to encourage people back into more efficient city living?
To create a low-carbon economy we need to become a nation of city dwellers. We tax cigarettes to reflect the harm they do to our health: we need to tax lifestyles that are damaging the health of the planet – and that means targeting people who choose to live in the countryside. We need a Rural Living Tax. Agricultural workers and others whose jobs require them to live outside cities would be exempt. The revenue raised could be used to build new, well-planned cities and to radically upgrade the infrastructure of existing cities.
We have an opportunity to create an urban renaissance, to make cities attractive places to live again – not just for young adults, but for families and retired people, the groups most likely to leave the city. Turning our old cities into “smart cities” won’t be easy or cheap, but in a recession this investment in infrastructure will boost the economy. We need to learn to love our cities again, because they will help us to save the planet.
It’s a nice idea and well-meant, but there are some pretty obvious flaws to the suggestion. First and foremost, Smith seems to have overlooked the fact that the affluent middle classes who are at the centre of the migration into the countryside are the most politically active slice of the UK population, and no government in its right mind (if such a thing exists) is going to risk alienating them by crushing their dreams of “getting away from it all” with their hard-earned money.
Another problem is the assumption that country living is necessarily less energy efficient. As the months pass, more and more middle-class jobs will fall into the sphere of knowledge work, making them ideally suited for telecommuting… which is something that businesses looking to save on their payroll overheads are starting to wake up to. Offer the chance to work from home in exchange for a smaller pay-packet, and there’ll be a significant take-up.
Plus country houses – while usually bigger and less efficient than city dwellings – are more easily retrofitted for energy efficiency, and more likely to have that money spent on them by their owners rather than by government grants – if there’s a clear economic benefit to investing in a “greener” household, you can bet your life the middle class will be all over it like a rash, especially once a few trendsetters start doing it and trumpeting the benefits.
And let’s not forget that homes in the countryside are theoretically closer to domestic sources of food; with a little logistical planning and some smart entrepreneurship, even small villages could become efficient nexuses for local produce distribution. Hell, they could even start aiming for self-sufficiency and community agriculture, like the Pennines town of Todmorden, which is showing signs of successfully shifting toward community farming and a “locavore” lifestyle [via Global Guerrillas, of all places].
In short, there are definite downsides to the British rural exodus, but using the blunt instrument of tax to reverse it is bound to fail. Better still, surely, to embrace the rural shift and let economics do the hard work for you?