The English countryside conceals poverty, poor infrastructure and broken promises. Sean Coote reports from Glastonbury in Somerset.
Sitting at the gateway to the Somerset Levels, Glastonbury is looked upon not so much as a rural town with social and economic problems, but as a global international brand.
When people think of Glastonbury, they think of the festival with its demographically targeted fun and flags. They think of crystals, both the magic and balls variety, where a (three-foot high) healing crystal cave can set you back four grand. They think of vague spiritual matters, of Arthur and Guinevere: a myth putting bums on seats since the twelfth century.
What they don’t think of are food banks and community fridges, which people increasingly rely upon to feed themselves and their families, and where the idea of poverty and shoddy public services has become disturbingly normalised.
But help is at hand. This January, Glastonbury was granted £33.3 million from the Town Investment Fund (plus £6 million matching funding) to ‘drive economic growth and tackle the causes of deprivation’. Like much of rural England, the town clearly needs investment.
Tourism, low pay and unemployment
One thing has remained consistent since the Middle Ages: the town’s status depends on attracting visitors. Although for pilgrimage, now read tourism, which for practical purposes amounts to the same thing. One third of all jobs here are reliant on paying visitors. The festival alone creates something like 1000 local jobs for its duration, with 3000 people staying in locally run accommodation. Covid put a big dent in this.
As with much of the countryside, the reality on the ground here is fundamentally different from the tourist fantasy. Glastonbury is a town of 8800 people where unemployment nears 10%, more than double the national average, and where 37% of those in work are employed part time. And the part-time wages in Glastonbury are the lowest in Somerset.
I’ve lived here on and off for five years, as a seasonal Air B&B resident, as a factory worker, and now as a Universal Credit recipient. The conditions at the sawmill I worked in reflect the national picture, where wages don’t reflect the job’s stresses and responsibilities. A sawmill is an environment where a single mistake could see you, or your colleagues, literally cut in half. As for my current status, despite my ever-shrinking Universal Credit payments, I consider myself luckier than most. I have no debt or dependents relying upon me, unlike many of the people I encounter on a weekly basis.
I volunteer in a church that actually does what churches ought to do: provide for the poor, not with platitudes, but with food, drink, and genuine interaction. The work can be both informative and amusing. The other morning a traveller passed through. ‘Do you know what Tory actually means?’ he asked me. I didn’t. ‘It’s outlaw or robber in Gaelic.’ He wanted a British Rail tea. We remembered how we mocked the service at the time, and how we’re not laughing now.
Public transport: failing infrastructure
There is, sadly, no longer a rail service here, the Beeching report (the kind of short-term thinking that blights the capitalist model) having put an end to the Branch lines, that ran from Glastonbury and Street, in 1966. And the old routes where tracks once ran have been mostly built upon. Unless a programme of compulsory purchase and demolition is followed through, there’s sadly no chance of reviving those routes for the twenty-first century.
As many as 58% of journeys to work locally are made by private means (read cars for this), 8% above the national figure. Enough to form gridlock enroute to Bristol in the mornings. Given this, it would seem an obvious move to provide an efficient and affordable bus service. A woman I talked to at the community fridge, who has a car but can’t afford petrol, agreed with this idea.
So, what of the local bus service? Well, whenever I go to Wells for my Universal Credit appointment, I have to get the bus before the bus that should get me there on time, just in case the bus I actually need doesn’t turn up at all. This is happening with increasing frequency. There is a ‘choice’ between service providers, but return tickets between the two are not transferable. Yet again the negative effects of competition in public services are there to see.
It was recently reported on local news that there is a shortage of bus drivers. This is reflected in the fact that the local timetables (photocopies are taped to the shelters at ‘major’ stops) are subject to regular changes. I always make a point of asking drivers politely if they know what’s going on. If drivers know the answers, they’re not saying so. Then again, it’s hardly their job to act as PR reps for bad employers.
When I ask people at local stops (the elderly, the young, the poor) what they make of bus non-appearances, shoulders are frequently shrugged, as if to say that’s just the way that it is.
Like the normalisation of families having to rely on the beneficence of supermarkets to eat, the normalisation of failing public-transport provision is of course exactly how those that run and profit from the services want people to react.
Investment failing people
So, what’s being done about it? I had a look at the Glastonbury Town’s Fund brochure, detailing the distribution of the cash. It contains a series of pledges, under the headline ‘Clear Vision’. The visions on offer are ranked in order. Two in particular drew my attention.
a.) Tackle climate change
f.) Solve transport issues
The two are surely as inseparable as it gets.
So where is the money actually going? Well, of the £30.44 million on offer, only £0.97 million has been earmarked for transport and travel. The fact that the bus service that runs between Glastonbury and Bristol is in a state resembling chaos does not appear on the radar. Instead, there are pledges to assist with the shortage of car parking facilities by putting in place a park-and-ride scheme involving electric buses.
This all, of course, means people will presumably continue to drive their cars into town (or its outskirts) before suddenly going green. The concept of carbon neutrality (to be delivered by 2030) is here in danger of being reduced to friendly slogan.
Meanwhile, to get people to drive their cars into town, there are to be further tourist enticements: 1.19 million is going towards the construction of a Glastonbury Abbey Piazza. An Italian square as the entrance to the ruins of English medieval cathedral? Yes, the toilet block needs knocking down and rebuilding, and the remains of the abbey itself need structural bolstering, but building an ‘inviting approach and open piazza space’ sounds somehow disrespectful to its history. At worse it sounds like the precursor to an Arthurian Disneyfication.
I suspect the Abbey’s attraction lies in its very incompleteness, like myth itself. The visitor fills in the gaps, and the silences. Turn the centrepiece of the town into a theme park, and you risk missing the reasons why people visit in the first place.
Glastonbury, like many other places, has been a victim of post-industrial decline. The old mines of the region are long gone, the sheepskin and leather industries died out in the 1980s, and the livestock market moved away. Such industry, in better times, used to provide something in the region of 6000 jobs.
Now 83% of local businesses are described as micro or small, and the major portion of the money, a combined total of £10.3 million will go towards the regeneration of the town’s post-industrial spaces to help house them. They will become, variously, ‘multifunctional spaces’, ‘grow-on business spaces for artisan design’, and ‘craft-business incubation’, some with ‘glass-partitioned breakout rooms’.
Looking at the areas the Town Fund is targeting (certainly in terms of the language used to justify the monetary distribution), it seems to me a broader political problem is at play: the tendency towards creating post-industrial spaces aimed at a very different class of people from those who once worked there. What is being created is more space for small business owners, not job opportunities for workers.
Public goods not private profits
With regards to the Town Fund brochure’s number-one priority of sustainability, talk of carbon neutrality means next to nothing if you don’t make it worthwhile for people to leave their cars at home. Precious little in the Town Plan encourages people to do so, certainly in the broader context. It’s pure window dressing.
Neither does the plan make any provision at all for public housing. This is hardly surprising. The lack of investment in public housing for forty years has, along with low interest rates currently, increased the number of people investing their savings in property. A desire not to upset them, along with the more important factor of the ideological objection from the ruling class to public housing, has left the majority of working people completely unprotected from the ravages of the private sector.
Clearly, public transport needs to be immediately re-nationalised. In the short term, indicator boards should be provided, so at least the passenger (I’m not a customer) can plan their day to a reasonable degree. That of course should include getting to work and appointments on time.
And whilst the money is now starting to be spent, with the first projects now coming to some sort of fruition, people are still waiting their turn at the community fridge. And across the road, beleaguered passengers patiently wait for the ghost bus as cars (mostly housing only a driver) cruise happily past them.
While investment is always welcome, it remains to be seen how much working people’s lives will actually be improved.
 All figures quoted are from this document
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