Monthly Archives: July 2010

only connect: creating opportunities for our rural communities

Two weeks ago, on a mizzening Saturday morning in Mungrisdale –  having just cut the ribbon of the Northern Fells Group’s new fell-runner community bus – I visited the house of an elderly woman living on a state pension, whose cottage lay at the end of an unpaved track. The charity’s founder, Dr Jim Cox, was keen to show me and the Government Minister who was with us that the spectacular natural beauty of our uplands conceals pockets of real poverty. This was one of the central issues addressed last Thursday with the launch of the Prince of Wales’ Countryside Fund. Its activities coincide very closely with our priorities in Penrith and the Border, from ‘buying local’ to supporting affordable housing and family farms. The fund has already undertaken to offer targeted help to local organisations such as the Penrith-based Farmer Network with a grant to fund eight hill-farm apprenticeships in association with Newton Rigg. As the Prince said recently: “The church, the village school, our shops and pubs all depend on a local economy, the backbone of which is agriculture and the family farm. Without them, we are left with ghost communities. Is that the countryside we want?” Our rural areas remain under threat. The National Index of Deprivation reports that an estimated 23% of households in Penrith and the Border live in fuel poverty – more than double the English average. The average house price in our constituency is £180,000, and yet the average annual salary in the Eden valley is roughly £16,000. Recent NFU research found the average farmer’s income in upland areas to be just £6,000. Access to public services and financial advice is difficult at best, compounded by extremely poor transport links (this is why it is so important that in the Caldbeck area, fell-runner buses can connect communities in enterprising and efficient ways).

And yet, we are rich in so many other ways. We can boast of activists lobbying tirelessly for improved resources in cottage hospitals, the better to embrace state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment technologies; of community groups committed to digging trenches with their own tractors to lay fibre-optic broadband cables for the benefit of their neighbours; of volunteers giving up hours of their time to help those less able with domestic chores and home repairs. That same drizzly Saturday morning, at the Mosedale Coffee Shop – a community-run summer initiative housed in the Quaker Friends’ Meeting House – I drank hot coffee and ate flapjacks baked by one of the many volunteers of the Northern Fells Group, itself a project inaugurated by the Prince in 1999 as one of his Rural Revival Projects. And this in a week when the Eden District was announced as one of four test-beds for the ‘Big Society’ agenda. Our challenge – and my challenge – is to connect all the energy and interest and needs of rural communities with our new government. This won’t be easy. We have just heard that the Commission for Rural Communities and the Rural Advocate have been abolished. Many other agencies connected with rural affairs are also disappearing. There will be less money. We must, therefore, respond by taking initiative. We must force government to be more respectful of the values and projects of local communities, and more tolerant of risk. And above all we must make rural places which can often seem marginal to London, central to our national concerns.

a clarification and an apology

The Sunday Mirror has claimed today I called people “primitive”. This is a complete misrepresentation of what I said during an interview two weeks ago in another newspaper when discussing poverty in Cumbria. What I said then was “some areas here are pretty primitive”. I apologise if this was in any way unclear, but I meant that there are areas in Cumbria where people lack things, taken for granted in cities, and that these areas need more investment and more public services. It was never a judgement on people. I have already received an apology from the journalist who originally interviewed me.  The Sunday Mirror’s misrepresentation of my words is an insult to the hard-working people of Cumbria. I am investigating raising it with the Press Complaints Commission.  I remain very sorry for any hurt that this misrepresentation may have caused.

the ‘big society’ announcement

On Monday, I went with Gordon Nicolson and others to hear the Prime Minister announce the Eden Valley as a pilot for the ‘Big Society’.  On Tuesday, I read that a resident of Crosby Ravensworth did not know what this meant.  He or she is not alone. It is very confusing. We are accustomed to projects meaning money and new organisations. So we might expect Big Society to be something like Cumbria Vision or the Lottery Fund. But Big Society isn’t something you can get like a pot of money, or an officer: it’s an approach.

In a Big Society project, government is more likely to contribute a public asset, technical advice, or a loan. It is more likely to abolish regulations than make new ones.  In a Big Society broadband project, for example, the government could open access to government cables, lend to communities that want to set up their own systems or put pressure on BT. If this approach is flexible and imaginative enough, it can achieve minor miracles. Government cannot afford to spend the £12bn pounds that BT estimates it would take to deliver superfast broadband to Britain. But we hope to show in Cumbria that there is a way of doing it at a fraction of the cost and time. If you are interested do please come to our conference in Rheged on 18th September.

I’ve got in trouble recently talking to a journalist about poverty in Cumbria.  I regret talking to him because he quoted me out of context. The message I was trying to get across is that Cumbria is not some uniform, leafy Surrey suburb.  The journalist, and even Treasury officials sometimes appear to imagine that because our villages look tidy they are full of only wealthy, retired professionals.  Of course, we have such people, but there are also pockets of poverty.  Farmers can live in conditions which force them to be self-reliant in ways that can seem surprising to an outsider.  Our elderly often live in isolation, where fuel costs are high and there are no bus services.

We need to communicate this if we are to continue to get the services we need. We must also make sure the Cumbrian volunteers – who do so much that government will never do – are not deterred by the pettiness of paperwork and the senseless rulings that I see every week in surgery. I am reminded daily how much government likes to specify, regulate, and standardize.  It finds real, living communities messy and inconvenient and can think of three hundred reasons to say ‘no’ or ’not yet’.  The Big Society is ultimately about challenging that mindset. The Prime Minister, I believe, sees his role as one of leadership, to pass the message down to every level, that we must free communities.

I made my first speech in the chamber this week. Before I came here I had some image, drawn from a history book, of Disraeli pulling himself to his feet at midnight to mesmerise the back-benches with an hour and a quarter of polished and erudite oratory.  I hoped that one day I too could try some rhetoric, or at least earn a laugh in the chamber. But I have found it difficult to get involved. The chamber has been packed with new members who often seemed astonishingly well-informed about ten-minute rules and adjournments, topical questions (submitted on a pink slip) and written questions (on a white slip). They even know when the mace should be placed on the table and when under it.  It all made me feel like a clumsy dancer, learning the steps by rote as everyone else glides effortlessly past.

It took me three separate pieces of paper to work out last week that Labour amendment 58 on the Finance Bill was in support of VAT exemption for Mountain Rescue. As a Cumbrian and as the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mountain Rescue I did not feel I could vote against it. Labour initially let it pass without a vote and then suddenly reintroduced it without a debate. And I had a moment’s notice to explain to my Conservative whip that I would not vote. He was surprisingly understanding. But it all felt muddled, hurried and slightly worrying. When I told an older MP, he joked ‘that’ll teach you to find out what amendments say’.

I paid tribute to David Maclean in my speech. I have been struck whenever I come across his case-work by the energy, care and honesty with which he fought for all constituents. During Foot and Mouth, with his cromach in his hand, he brought all his knowledge and fighting spirit to Cumbria. The constituency boundaries follow those of the old Western March and I told the house that I felt, at that moment, that he was the Warden of our March.


maiden speech in the chamber



A man may not make a maiden speech twice. Due to a misunderstanding in Westminster Hall, I appear to have lost my maidenhood, so I apologise to the House. I would like to speak about amendment 71, but very briefly, with your permission, Mr Caton, I would like first to pay tribute to my predecessor, David Maclean of Penrith and The Border, and then bring my remarks back to this importantamendment.

In Westminster Hall, I was unable to recognise the extraordinary service that David Maclean paid to this House over 27 years. I thought that I was stepping into big shoes, but I had no idea how large. I remember climbing up a snowdrift in December last year feeling like Scott of the Antarctic reaching an isolated farmstead to find that David Maclean, like Amundsen, had already been there before me, and repeatedly. As I have moved around over the past few weeks, I have seen the incredible care that he paid to his constituents. Every time I pick up a sheaf of documents, I can see that he has written no fewer than 11 letters of astonishing energy and specificity. During the debate over the past two days, I have often heard Vernon Coaker ask people to answer the question. On the basis of the letters that I have seen, Mr Maclean answered the question repeatedly, and with vigour and honour. When asked, for example, about windmills, he did not simply say, like an ex-civil servant such as myself, “On the one hand, but then on the other,” but instead attacked the technology and the proposal and ensured that people organised as a social committee to oppose it.

Let me conclude on the subject of my predecessor by saying that his greatest moment was during the foot and mouth crisis, when, with his staff, which he and I would call a cromach, in his hand, he moved across our landscape, denuded of livestock, with funeral pyres burning on the border, and defended his constituency-the ancient constituency of the Western March, that ancient mediaeval frontier-like a warden of the Western March.

In relation to amendment 71, I have been charmed by the reasonableness of the hon. Member for Gedling. I entirely agree with him about the importance of special educational needs provision; I have personal reasons to do so. I agree also about some of the dangers that he has mentioned, such as the potential confusion between funding arrangements and the responsibilities defined within the Bill. He and the bodies that he cited are absolutely right to be concerned about special educational needs provision. I am no expert on the subject, so these comments are meant respectfully to him.

As I say, I am not an expert on education, nor am I a lawyer, but it seems to me, as the hon. Gentleman has already accepted, that many of the things for which he is pressing have already happened under clause 1(8)(a). Some of this-again, I am not a lawyer-seems declaratory in nature rather than necessary. The focus on recognition of the condition and the right of appeal is central, but with respect I would say that there is some confusion about the amendment, and that it would not achieve the purposes that he wishes. He has talked at immense length about his concerns over funding, quality, and the definition of low incidence special educational needs. Amendment 71, to my non-lawyerly eye, would not achieve any of those objectives.

In fact, if one listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, one heard him focus repeatedly on the word “mechanism”. He is very interested in process, and on that we have a philosophical disagreement. Instead of beginning from where we are and what academies are actually doing, and accepting that the Bill will improve rather than decrease the performance of academies in relation to special educational needs, he is obsessed with central processes. He seems to believe that local authorities are the ideal mechanism.

Reading the amendment carefully shows that it is not really as the hon. Gentleman implies. It is an attempt to do things that have nothing to do with the law. A lot of what he talked about from the Dispatch Box would be absolutely right for him to consider if he were the Minister, such as the importance of considering funding arrangements and ensuring that definitions are in place, but a lot of the detail of the amendment is about administration, not about the law. The purpose of the law is to define the objective, which, broadly speaking, is to delegate.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not the like the word “delegation” and is not comfortable with it. He is not, as he suggests, simply asserting the importance of special educational needs, nor even the necessity for a process or a mechanism. He is setting out a specific process and mechanism, namely local authorities. His amendment repeatedly requires the Secretary of State to assess all the current local authority provision and the support that it provides, and to focus in that assessment on any funding requirements attached to that.

That is a classic example of what was wrong with the previous approach. Instead of focusing on a special educational needs outcome with which we all agree, the hon. Gentleman is attempting to micro-manage the process with a preference for the local authority.

With respect and much gratitude, I thank the Committee.

focusing on cumbria

I’m writing this after sitting up till 2.45am with 600 fellow MPs to vote on the budget. The speeches were remarkable more for their length than their content. And as the hours passed, tired politicians seemed to fall back, like old war horses, on familiar phrases: words like ‘challenge’, ‘opportunity’, ‘cuts’ and then – a more recent addition – the ‘Big Society’.  I passed the time wondering how such slogans apply to Cumbria.

The phrase ‘we must eliminate the structural deficit through 25 per cent cuts’ may be accurate but does not convey the pain that we will feel over the next four years. Penrith and the Border is in a stronger position than most, but there will be real losses. And my experience of running a charity and working in government has taught me how difficult this can be. The axe which does the cutting is always blunter than we would like.

Our constituency economy has the highest rate of self-employed people and micro-businesses in the country, so we will benefit from the chancellor’s exemptions for small businesses and (because much of our economy is based on tourism) from the decision to scrap special taxes on furnished lettings. The Chancellor has promised to consider a fuel discount for rural areas. But we will also remain deeply disadvantaged by our sparse population and great distances. Alston must keep its cottage hospital and school – nothing proved this more directly to me than when I walked from Alston to Renwick over Hartside this winter when the road was closed. But the high school is about to become the smallest single high school in Britain. Patients from Kirkby Stephen already need to travel to Carlisle for hospital services – which could be a three-hour round trip. Every year the pressure builds to close local sites, amalgamate and centralise on cities. Over 2,000 schools have closed since 1997 and 330 clinics and hospitals; and that was at a time of massive increases in public spending.

The first sign of the future was last week’s proposal to close the Penrith Magistrates’ Court on that grounds that it is ‘underused and inadequate’. Penrith’s closure would mean that a witness or defendant from Kirby Stephen would have to make the 100-mile round trip to Carlisle to have his or her case heard. The planned closure would also be a blow to local justice: who can expect magistrates in Carlisle to know a place and a community 50 miles away, well enough to see that justice is done?

There will be a real temptation to wait until each cut is announced before fighting it individually. We have done it in the past. I am doing something similar trying to safeguard Newton Rigg, through ten hours of meetings this past week alone. But the time is coming when we are going to have to see all these threats as symptoms of a single disease: the government’s reluctance to respect the rural, the local and the particular. I made myself unpopular in my first meeting as Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Services by saying that rather than just limiting ourselves to defending rural hospitals and schools, we needed to get into the Treasury and fight for all rural services together. And although I won the argument in the Group, I may not in the Treasury.

The coming years are going to call for energy from all of us. I will have to make sure every Minister is focused on Cumbria and our needs. All of us will have to work out how to make sure the cuts are controlled: making it clear what we are never prepared to give up, what is a waste and what we can reluctantly lose. All this will draw on real reserves of ingenuity and self-reliance. I began by saying that our advantage in this crisis will be the shape of our economy but perhaps our strongest advantage is Cumbrian culture itself  – the same culture that has supported the Air Ambulance, set up bus services from the Fell-runner in the East of the constituency to the Northern Fells Group in the West and, in Alston, has led the most famous community broadband project in the country.   This is the same culture that I was lucky enough to participate in at the Skelton Show, the Wigton Carnival and the Brampton fete in aid of the cottage hospital. And curiously, it is nowhere more evident than in the power of our campaigns: on wind-farms, which seem at first to be against something rather than for it, but which in fact reflect a deeper wisdom, a capacity for detailed work, co-operation, patience and determination. And common-sense. Again and again our communities show they know more, care more and can do more than distant officials. But how do we make more of this strength? What new obstacles would we have to remove? What support and links could we provide? How can we set our communities free?

big society? It’s all about liberating the locals

Yesterday, the Prime-Minister highlighted the Eden communities in my constituency as exemplars of the Big Society. The concept – like much in modern politics – is a coalition within a coalition. But whatever Big Society means, there are some valuable things going on in communities in Cumbria.  Last winter, I spent the first night of a five week walk through the constituency, in Kirkby Stephen. I did not focus on the beauty and history of this most remote of market towns (the nearest city and hospital is at Carlisle –a three hour round trip away) but went instead to the community centre to meet the leaders of the Upper Eden community plan.

The jargon in their ‘strategy document’ depressed me. But Libby Bateman, the project officer, won me over – and not only because she fed me a pie. She had grown up in Eden and knew almost everyone. She suggested how broadband access might be brought to the Mallerstang valley; she described the mothers who had built the Brough playground. And Alex (the locally born, unpaid chairman of a remote rural parish body) turned out to be a highly articulate liberal forty year-old solicitor. Prepare, in any community, for the most unexpected people.

A day later I turned down to Crosby Ravensworth, where Annie, Joan and David were designing their own affordable housing scheme, sealing their community purchase of the pub and building their own anaerobic digestor to generate their electricity.  A week later I was walking towards Caldbeck, where the Northern Fells Group had set up their own bus service and run parts of their own elderly care.

Some say ‘Big Society’ is just a mask for government cuts. But these projects are not trying to replace, still less cut, the great national services such as health and highways. Some say it is only for wealthy areas but we are a low income area with serious deprivation. Two miles from Caldbeck I visited the cottage of a woman on a state pension who lives down an unpaved track with no indoor toilet. Some say it relies on leadership rarely found. But when I went to the village hall I found 120 volunteers working to support people in need in the parish.

I see an MP’s role as helping clear obstacles in these communities’ path. The people of Morland should not need to answer 15 questions and pay £50 for a permit to step in their own river to repair their own weir. If Ravonstonedale wants to build the bicycle path for half the price quoted by the county council contractor, why not?  Why must Caldbeck spend weeks disguising simple worthwhile projects in fashionable jargon on donor application forms? The people of Kirkby Stephen should be able to choose to own and run their community center; Crosby Ravensworth to build their own affordable housing, and buy out their own pub.  For this, our government needs to be more flexible; more respectful of the values and projects of local communities; more tolerant of risk. District councils should continue to provide strong support. And we will need new forms of financing and insurance.

This is not what everyone means by ‘Big Society’. The Cumbrian approach is not big, but local and particular. It is about decentralisation but without giving more power to county councils. It is not necessarily about charities or even the private sector, both capable of manufacturing jargon as impenetrable and procedures as rigid as the most Byzantine government bureaucracy. Nor is it about atomised individuals allowed to do whatever they want.

It’s about collective action. We have more common land in Cumbria than anywhere in Britain, stronger co-ops and mutualised banks; we support everything from the Air Ambulance to Mountain Rescue. These are not undertaken by grand philanthropists: they are about collective endeavour, be it on planning, financing, building, maintaining or supporting. This is what we mean by local democracy.

The people we work with are mostly unpaid, elected parish councillors: locals who in their own patch know more, care more, and are more likely to find creative and informed solutions than outsiders. When they consult they do so energetically, comprehensively. They live among their ‘clients’. David, who leads the Crosby project, is not protected by a call centre from suggestions and complaints: they come straight over his garden fence. Such people are unlikely to spend their own money on stupid or wasteful projects; they can build efficiently; they have a direct interest in maintaining their assets.

Cumbrian Big Society is no grand ideological project – we would not want it to be. Nor is it the only answer to our nation’s ills. But if we set these communities free; many services now threatened could be saved; projects which now look impossible – such as superfast rural broadband – could happen quickly. The value of what we create may go beyond service delivery and liberate a community’s imagination and pride.
Rory Stewart is MP for Penrith and the Border and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Local Democracy