Sometimes it’s really so easy to convince ourselves that the current issues in the UK are down to Brexit, local policies and even the weather! Some of the issues are long standing and gain attention as tensions created by them steadily streghten. Rural housing in the National Parks is one such issue, which may not seem to be directly relevant to the study but nonetheless impacts on the destinations of care as people find their support needs increase. I want to share with you a recent discussion paper about the issue of housing for older people in areas considered to be of outstanding natural beauty. For those of you living in the UK, you would be forgiven for thinking this was directly about the UK National Parks. This paper considers a village sitting in a National Park located in Hungry, but I think it is more powerful for this as most rural dwellers in the UK National Parks will recognise these housing debates by heart. What might be less apparent is the future potential impact of housing on older rural dwellers who live in the tourist hot spots.
In Hungry sits a small village, which by all accounts is something of a tourist magnet, for the beautifully preserved public and private buildings. However, as the local population ages issues have surfaced which threaten to invade the very essence of the tourist attraction and so the potential income source to the area. The type of tourism is classed as Heritage Tourism, which feeds the perceived need in visitors to experience history in all its authenticity including the built environment. Our ever increased desire for a quality day out is no longer content with a few historically preserved buildings but seeks the all encompassing village life experience, probably with the option for authentic sounds and smells and staying in some sanitised shepherd hut to complete the dream. Gritty lead mining is transformed into a hands on experience much to the bemusement of ancestors. However, on a more serious note, there are very few opportunities for local residents to express the impact of this activity on their identities and communities. Subtly these properties are also hotbeds of rising commercial value with potential investors considering how many concealed holiday lets can be configured behind the 3 foot deep walls. Real time living is somehow expected to function within the shadows of such heritage tourism from at least March to October each year. In short places become off-limits to local residents in subtle insidious ways.
The paper from Hungry includes the following statement: “The making of heritage and tourism can carry positive implications for local communities such as a sense of locality and pride and entrepreneurial activity, economic growth whilst the benefits for local community can be very limited and give rise several negative social impacts and conflicts (Herzfeld, 2010; Silva, 2014). Herzfeld (2010) …. discussed the consequences of heritage conservation and gentrification together. He demonstrated that the state-sponsored historic conservation with public authority driven gentrification almost always bring the tragedy for locals including the escalation of prices resulted from real estate speculation or new place functions (e.g. sacred space) with off-limits to ordinary residents.” Csizmady Adrienne and Csurgó, Bernadett (2017). The references can be found on Google.
These consequences of heritage tourism and gentrification are illustrated in the article and also described to me by residents. Many of ageing residents happen to live in and among the centre of the most historic dwellings; some of them live within them as proud descendants of umpteen generations in the same house. Most of these homes are subject to stringent planning laws and conservation criteria. Some of these homes are now being adapted to enable the occupants to independently get out and about and so carry on with the usual stuff of life. This would normally be considered unproblematic except that some of these adaptations are visually intrusive and include handrails adjacent to steps, ramps for wheelchairs and the emotive issue of dedicated parking spots. However, the issues of visibility create a tension with the aesthetic sensibilities of the imperatives to maintain the Heritage tourism and gentrification status quo. Many of these adaptations are not permanent and so removable in the future. Internally many of the properties require upgraded measures to help conserve energy and maintain adequate warmth in the winter months, because when the tourists and second home owners have dwindled the snow arrives. Arguably these properties are not that conducive to modern living, especially as people now live longer with chronic conditions, with their quirky internal configurations, low ceilings and are impossible to insulate adequately.
They are home to many older people. And home is where the heart is.
The financial and emotional impact of planning applications, refusals and objections to obtaining adaptations, which convince locals to leave their homes and localities is rarely documented, let alone researched. Worryingly it is almost accepted practice in the UK, promoted by local authorities. Those with the smallest voices, such as the very elderly with no advocates, are often posited as selfish or even lacking mental capacity to decide for themselves if they refuse to move. Why are these individuals being marginalised in their own communities? Why is it considered reasonable to suggest that they have to move, often way beyond their local places? We wouldn’t expect a young family with a disabled child to move on the basis of needing a marked disabled bay or visual adaptations to their historic property so why are older people expected to move when their needs for say a contrast painted handrail and ramps jar the imperative for the authentic village experience?
So why did this Hungarian account resonate with me? Firstly it confirms and concedes that there are very real tensions between the local residents, who are not to blame for wishing to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, and the local authorities. Secondly it highlights the rhetoric of those in power who thinly veil their views that all would be sorted if only these very same older residents did “the responsible thing” and moved to more accessible, fuel efficient and functional homes before they became too dependent on others for their care. Their picturesque homes would raise considerable equity to pay for future care during the downsizing transition (thus saving future statutory costs) and preserve the visual image of the rural idyll with no stark reminders of any modern day reminders ( with mobility needs by the installation of grab rails or ramps) which obscure the heritage experience. Nostalgic dreams of the rural idyll must not dominate the imperative for common sense decisions necessary for rural older people to remain in place. Here, as in Hungry, picture postcard imagery grapples with the everyday messiness of grab rails, ramps, key boxes and mobility vehicles. Thirdly, older people still contribute to their local communities as active citizens; they are not passive actors in some heritage soap opera but key players in all that makes a community alive and thriving.
If we are to really address the housing needs of rural older people living in National Parks, there needs to be a concerted effort to enable existing homes to be adapted and local fully accessible homes to be built within the immediate vicinity of these rural dwellers. It is not acceptable to continue to push people out of area on the basis of a lack of accessible affordable housing during their most vulnerable time as health deteriorates. Currently people have few choices; they are ageing in place in properties which hold deep emotional attachments. Support needs to be given to enable such residents to remain in these homes which are often laden with ties and memories down generations. Some of these people may consider moving to new builds if they can remain living in their communities and independently. Architects and planners can come together to devise ground breaking designs which will in time become in themselves historic dwellings. Change is necessary to preserve the future of rural communities.