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Rural experts visit Ambridge conference

Less than 20 per cent of the UK population lives in rural areas so it’s not surprising that, for many people in the UK, long-running BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers is an important source of knowledge and understanding of the countryside.

Even experts in the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University are fans, and they will be joining a dedicated band of academic listeners at the Archers Academics conference in the British Library in London on Saturday 17 February 2018.

The Archers was originally conceived as a means of conveying the latest developments in agricultural technology to farmers.  Now academics are using the characters and storylines to reflect on their own research through the lens of life in this fictional rural community.

The Newcastle University delegates are expecting some sparks to fly when they discuss their research findings on the process known as “rural proofing”.  Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy Sally Shortall will be challenging the idea that this concept - which aims to ensure government policy does not disadvantage countryside dwellers – is the best way to help communities such as Ambridge to flourish. 

It is clear that life for many residents in Ambridge can be difficult.  The younger characters have problems with accessing housing, employment and transport.  Emma Grundy and her husband Ed, for example, have been unable to afford their own house and over several years have lived with their respective parents.  They are pinning their hopes on buying a house in a planned new development and Emma is working at three jobs to help them save for a deposit.  But other villagers are anxious that the new houses will spoil Ambridge and that the designated “affordable houses” may even attract undesirable residents.

Professor Sally Shortall said: “Rural proofing is a concept originating with the English Rural White paper in 2000 that aims to reduce inequalities between town and country.  I’m sure many of the Archers characters would say that it sounds like a great idea. 

“But as the story about Emma and Ed’s housing problems reveals, there are conflicts around what different people need and want, and that applies in both the town and the country. Richer, often older, residents enjoy much easier lives, with all the pleasures and advantages the countryside can offer, and we argue that policies need to be targeted with this in mind.  

“We have research evidence that clearly shows problems around housing, transport, employment etc are social rather than specifically rural.  It isn’t a purely geographical issue. 

“But I suspect that some of the characters in the Archers might take a different view and I’m anticipating some particularly probing questions from the Borchester Echo!”

This is the third annual conference to be staged by academics who are fans of the BBC Radio 4 soap opera.

The third Academic Archers conference takes place on Saturday 17 February 2018 at the British Library, Euston Road, London and is organised by long-time fans of the programme Dr Cara Courage and Dr Nicola Headlam, University of Oxford.

published on: 12 February 2018