Our fight to preserve Cumbrian schools, hospitals, community facilities, and local services has led us into a battle, which is not just local but national. All across Britain, the hearts of rural villages and towns are collapsing and their culture of the local and personal is replaced by distant and inflexible centralized services. The latest government figures (released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, quoted most recently by the Mail and Mirror) seem to show that this is happening at an extraordinary rate.
The closing of Askham village school and Longtown’s Lochinvar secondary school (and its amalgamation with William Howard in Brampton) reflect a context where, the number of British schools has fallen by 2,380 since 1997. Brampton, Wigton, Penrith and Alston hospitals may be saved for the moment but the number of British hospitals has fallen overall by 580. Penrith mart narrowly escaped closure, while across Britain the number of livestock markets has fallen from 180 to 110. Perhaps the hardest hit though have been social clubs, which have fallen from 21,130 to 9,450. While Caldbeck post-office is struggling to remain open and dozens of others have closed across the constituency, the number of post-offices nationally has almost halved in three years (falling from 19,000 to 11,500 since 2007). In Castle Carrock, the Duke of Cumberland has reopened next to the Weary Sportsman but Hesket Newmarket was, famously, only able to save its own pub through a community purchase and Garrigill is just one of many Cumbrian pubs in danger of disappearing entirely. Nationally 3,460 pubs have closed since 1997. Meanwhile, the Sainsbury proposal at Penrith and the Tesco’s proposal at Wigton is part of a broader trend which has seen the number of supermarkets increase since 1997 from 1,420 to 2,120.
Many more examples of this movement against traditional local institutions are not measured in national statistics. They include the pressures to create unitary councils or, in Eden, the moves to share Chief Executives and services with other councils. In the army, Cumbria’s Border regiment with antecedents going back 250 years – immortalized in George Macdonald Fraser’s ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ – was amalgamated once again in 2006 as the third battalion of a North-Western hybrid, before that battalion in turn was swallowed into the larger whole. The Cumbrian police almost merged with Lancaster (across the country 160 police stations have been closed). Bus services have disappeared so much that they have had to be replaced with voluntary action such as the fell-runner buses. Banks become increasingly centralised and local bank managers are no longer able to extend credit lines to well-known and trusted local businessmen. Newton Rigg and Ambleside both once well-known and distinguished national educational institutions have been amalgamated into the University of Cumbria and then inevitably had some of their assets being sold off, Ambleside being ‘moth-balled’ and Newton Rigg at risk of losing its farmland and its 14-19 year old education.
The same fight between local and small-scale and the national and general is evident in the struggle of small farms and hill-farms to survive in the face of the global food market and super-markets that sell milk for four times the price for which they buy it and pay three months’ late. The dramatic fall in the number of small farms nationally is reflected throughout Cumbria – around Milburn on the East Fellside, for example, the last thirty years has seen the number of small family farms halved. The local butchers and shops which might support the smaller farms are themselves going under. As margins collapse, young people are understandably reluctant to go into farming or open a shop.
Councils, government departments and developers present each individual closure or amalgamation as unique. But these are all aspects of a deeper structural change. Some of the reasons for the decisions are financial. In certain cases councils close old local services, because the councils are spending far more than they are earning and hope to ease their financial pressures by selling the land or sites of old facilities or entering into private finance initiatives (or lift schemes) where the repayment of the debt is deferred. These capital assets (often given by philanthropists to the county in the past) then vanish into current accounts. Recent decisions by Eden District Council on the Penrith New Squares or the sharing of services have been strongly influenced by their financial predicament. In other cases, council staff or police or army officers would rather be part of a larger, centralized, better equipped machine with better internal promotion prospects. In others a new centralized building may simply be a way of using some newly available government funds. In others, government officials are keen to put their name on a new building.
All of these economic or institutional motivations, underlie and muddle the policy arguments. Thus once they are determined to close and amalgamate, policy-makers will argue:
- The institution (which like Alston hospital may have survived a hundred years ago, in a much less-well funded environment) is now ‘too costly to retain’
- That there is ‘no demand’ for the services (this seems to have been one of the arguments on Penrith hospital beds and in the case of bus services this lack of demand is often the artificial result of cutting the service so much or running at such an eccentric time that people simply abandon it).
- That the current facilities (which may be considered acceptable by current staff or users) are ‘not fit for purpose’
- That the current facilities face problems on road safety, parking or disabled access, which cannot be solved
- That amalgamation will lead to ‘better coordination’, ‘less silos’ and ‘savings’ (even if that has not happened in other similar experiments)
- That future projections – based on very abstract figures and formula – show the current situation is ‘not sustainable’
- That a new centralized building will be ‘cheaper to maintain’ than the existing facility (although the cost of demolition of the old facility and construction of the new facility will dwarf the maintenance cost)
- That there is a sum of money available which ‘cannot be used for anything else’ and which would otherwise be ‘lost to the community’ (although almost none of that money will go to local businesses, being largely absorbed by national contractors)
- That (again based on very theoretical and generally misleading figures) the project will somehow bring economic benefit to the towns from which the service is being removed
- That opposition is simply that ‘people don’t like change’
- That ‘the town is dying anyway and the development is the only way to save it’ (this has been tried as an argument in Penrith)
This continual trend of closure, relocation and amalgamation is devastating for local economies and communities. It creates segregated spaces, accessible only by car – out of town health-centers, schools shifted to the edges of towns, and above all out-of-town supermarkets. As people find it more convenient to park in the out-of-town supermarkets and benefit from their mass-pricing, they visit the center of town less and less – old businesses collapse and a blight of charity shops and abandoned premises spread through the high streets. Councils then exacerbate the problems by introducing parking restrictions and charges, which discourage shoppers from lingering in shops. Hexham is just one example among thousands in Britain of this process in operation.
Meanwhile, the tendency to take services – whether police, medical, educational or council – further and further and further away makes the officers less aware of precise local problems, less able to respond flexibly and pragmatically to everyday challenges, and less accessible and answerable to local demands. So many parts of government from councillors to pension and tax advice have become inaccessible – hidden in distant new offices or down automatic help-lines.
Traditional smaller, more local facilities, not in segregated purpose-built zones but integrated into the mixed activities of a town or village center are far better for communities, the environment and local economies. Mixed use areas with intermingled shops, houses, schools, doctor surgeries, restaurants and police stations tend to be more vibrant and prosperous. They tend to have a broader range of ages in the streets and be safer for residents. The residents are less dependent on making long-journeys by motor-car and they visit local high street shops more regularly. The professionals in those communities are able to respond more quickly to the needs of residents – often stepping outside their formal job description to do so. Thus, the pharmacist in Brampton can provide basic advice and remedies so that people don’t need to go the GPs for minor ailments. The assistant post master in Longtown can help elderly people with early Alzheimers to access and manage their money. The elderly, as in Brampton can be in a home, right in the center of town where they can step outside or receive passing family. Our ageing population will find it increasingly difficult to travel long distances or rely on automated systems and will need local personal services, more and more. Traditional centers allow much more easily for the retention and the use of historic buildings which are central to the culture and heritage of a community. This in turn allows them to benefit from tourism. The human scale of these communities if more satisfying and fulfilling for residents.
Planners have written about this for over fifty years. Residents sense the problem instinctively. There have been campaigns from Cumbria to Cornwall to preserve local rural services. But the current statistics suggest we are losing this fight. Government embraces a futurist fantasy of standardized, centralized and distant services. They use their overwhelming power to drive these schemes through, suggesting through misleading arguments that there is ‘no alternative.’ They are often reinforced by large businesses such as super-markets who use their own lawyers and experts to sell the schemes. Communities are rarely able to resist.
It is no longer enough to try to fight each battle individually. We need to engage with these arguments across the board. We need to argue not just for the advantages of a particular hospital or landscape or high street but to assert the importance of the local, the pre-existing, and the particular. We need to become more confident in dismissing narrow economic arguments based on doubtful statistical projections. We need to help councils to realize there are better ways of trying to save money than closing, moth-balling, relocation and amalgamation. We need to become much more adept at exposing the emptiness of phrases such as ‘not fit for purpose’ or ‘unsustainable’. We need to be more confident in cutting through and rejecting the jargon and arguments of consultants and planners, which are themselves often the products of transitory fashions. We need to involve communities much more fully in the urban design process. This does not mean sending out weighty and unreadable consultation documents or strategic plans, it means working very closely with communities over significant periods of time to enable them to generate the best solution for their town. Our most important and most difficult task is to force government to acknowledge the value of traditional town and village centers with their overlapping functions and services. We need to make economic arguments for them. But there are other things, which cannot be quantified, may only be acknowledged once they are almost gone. We need to understand and then communicate how these towns, these villages and these many aspects of our community life are important parts of our identity, meaning and values, which should not be sold for a quick profit or in deference to a fashionable slogan.