13 April 2010, Nenthead, Alston and Garrigill
By Will Clegg, member of the campaign team
Today we visited Nenthead, Alston and Garrigill, mountain villages in P&B’s northeast that stand testament to the importance of our fight to defend local services and promote the distinct needs of rural communities.
The village of Garrigill is one of Cumbria’s most remote, with around 200 permanent residents. A row of stone houses frames a picturesque green, and the community is served by a post-office and shop that have changed little in over 50 years. Yet the community’s future is threatened because the George and Dragon, the only pub for 3 miles, has been boarded up since last October. The building has served as a pub since the 17th Century and remains a viable business today. It is the only pub in the village, providing an important local meeting place. Given that Garrigill is on the Coast to Coast cycle route, the Pennine Way and the South Tyne Trail, its economy depends heavily on tourism. Since the George and Dragon closed, websites have advised tourists to avoid Garrigill due to a lack of facilities. This is tragic. Garrigill’s B&Bs and holiday cottages have lost 90% of their business, and the village’s shop and Post Office now face pressure to cut back on services and potentially shut down. Until the George and Dragon is re-opened, Garrigill’s future remains bleak.
In Nenthead the community was primarily concerned about the future of Alston Cottage Hospital. In 2008 the community fought for the facility’s future. A delegation travelled to Westminster where they received an assurance that the hospital would be maintained. However, NHS Cumbria recently decided to cut the hospital’s capacity from ten to six beds while also making the facility inaccessible on evenings and weekends. This policy has been implemented in defiance of the very low cost and very high benefit associated with maintaining a small number of additional beds in rural hospitals. It also fails to account for the very high cost of ferrying patients excluded from ‘consolidated’ cottage hospitals back and forth from what are often less-suitable facilities in Penrith, Hexham and Carlisle. Above all else, the case of Alston Cottage Hospital highlights that even if we save services in the short term, our work remains incomplete so long as technocratic elites continue to centralise without considering the specific needs of individual rural communities.
Alston Primary School is an extraordinarily focussed, happy place, and it supports the village school in Nenthead with which it is federated. Alston’s economy has endured many challenges, remaining vibrant and robust. Today, Total Post employs 15 full-time local staff who manufacture and sell post-handling equipment across the world. Bond’s Precision Casting (formerly Precision Products) employs 60 full-time staff from within a 5 mile radius. Although British iron foundries are often considered ‘sunset’ industries, Precision Casting produces pump-components of a very high-quality, 70% of which are for direct export. As such, the facility is well positioned to weather the national recession crippling British firms elsewhere.
Alston’s high street has a long history of closure and renewal. A shop that once sold flowers now sells hardware instead. The local bakery has won awards due to the quality of its products, benefiting from regional acclaim. The community’s Town Hall now hosts a well-stocked, modern library, while Sarah Bisson provides local youths with motivation and hope through her dedication to the Alston Youth Café. Cybermoor Ltd, a local social enterprise, ensures that Alston benefits from some of the fastest broadband in Britain, filling a gap that BT failed to service due to the costs of its bureaucracy and red-tape. Nonetheless, challenges remain. On the one hand, Alston is without public transport links to other villages, limiting the opportunity for young people to gain jobs outside of the town. On the other, inflexible planning laws prevent local production facilities from expanding, blocking well-paid jobs that would benefit the community. Despite barriers such as these, Alston’s innovative community is optimistic about the future, and is well positioned to exploit the twenty-first century so long as insensitive, irrelevant regulations are pushed out of the way.