Monthly Archives: February 2011

two campaigns: penrith cinema and newton rigg

On Thursday, I defended Cumbrian community action in the London School of Economics, where the rhetoric was as extreme as the setting was bland. My opponents compared parish council initiatives to Athenian slavery and the Bombing of Baghdad, in front of a quiet scholarly audience in a lecture theatre. On Saturday, I was amidst the joyful and unsettling reality of the cinema demonstration, teetering on a stage above a crowd of perhaps six hundred. Some protesters stood beside the police, holding banners, as solemn as at a picket-line. The group by the toy-shop were funereally quiet; but from the Co-op came a sprinting whooping posse, in neon bodysuits, leaping on the stage like circus tumblers. Children were singing and old men had that astonished, happy expression which I associate with a successful wedding. When I invited people to buy a share in the cinema, fifty voices shouted ‘yes’ in unison and we raised £9,000 in nine minutes. Dawn, who was leading the march, dressed for the second week as Darth Vader chanting “Save our cinema!”, seemed to harness the shared faith of the crowd, and its incongruous insurrectionary energy.

The next day, I was worried that we had all been simply carried away into something very risky. I had helped convince Graves, the owner, to let us bid, but was the price right? How was this whole thing going to be managed? I cleared my Sunday afternoon and arrived in the Methodist Central Hall, expecting a meeting of half a dozen. But there were forty: some in jeans and weekend stubble – some in climbing gear, fresh from the hills – others dressed for the “Sunday Evening Extra”. It was a group of varied equals, from teenagers to pensioners: each with firm and different philosophies and political views. But Ruth, who I had never met before, somehow emerged as first among these equals. She ran the meeting with the crispness of a conference in “The West Wing”: assigning every task from structural surveying, to marketing, to share issues and charitable structures. She used jargon phrases, to which I have always been allergic (she talked about ‘task and finish groups’), but she used them accurately and to deadly practical effect. I could and did take on a small amount: setting up the website, finding an office space, contacting the seller. But the group took on the whole driving responsibility for the project. A teenager took over the website, an accountant immediately volunteered for the book-keeping, a council officer brought clarity and systems without ever imposing his views on the room. We’ve a very long way to go. But it’s difficult not to be optimistic when you see the people in that room. 6,000 people have already signed up to support the cinema.

But we now need a crisp, clear, single approach to saving Newton Rigg. We’ve known it has been at risk for eighteen months. But we are still not there. This is not because of Newton Rigg itself. It has a historic name, unique land and a county that supports it. It could flourish by investing in new agricultural technologies, in dairy, and in upland farming.  And we need Newton Rigg for our economy, for our students, and for our farms. There has been no lack of community support: members of the Applefell group immediately launched a campaign, produced a compelling plan for the future of the campus and relentlessly kept the subject alive.  The Herald has championed it. Eden District Council crafted a detailed Cumbrian bid to take over the services. The staff brought their own proposal. And there have been leaflets, demonstrations, and dozens of official meetings. But Newton Rigg is still not safe.

The Yorkshire college, Askham Bryan, might now be given Newton Rigg’s 1,000 acres – which is worth tens of millions if it were developed – by the Skills Funding Agency with no strings attached, in order to run the college. If the land were protected, I would welcome Askham Bryan: they have good skills, experience, a good plan and money. But we cannot give them even the option of selling up the land and the college in a few years and returning to Yorkshire.  It would not just be the end of the land. It would be the end of over a hundred years of history, the end of hundreds of jobs, and the end of agricultural education in the uplands and the North-West.

We need one last push in this long difficult campaign and one focus: to ensure Newton Rigg is a flourishing agricultural college in a generation’s time. We must insist that, whoever takes the college, the land is protected by trust or strict covenant. There will be no movie heroes in this fight: the final terms will be set by accountants, and civil servants, and above all lawyers. But we need some cinema energy for Newton Rigg as well. Let’s gather more than the 6,000 names we got for the cinema – email [email protected] or write to me at the House of Commons – and let Carlisle and London see that we will not surrender this vital part of our heritage and our future.

thoughts on the big society

I thought I’d share a couple of points I’ve been trying to make in correspondence with a constituent about the Big Society: thoughts welcome…

Big Society projects are by their very nature local and varied. For that reason, they can only be fully assessed on the ground and in a particular place. A successful big society project is most visible in people, in attitudes, in transformation on the ground. It is not something which can be represented by council or district councils – since it is often about the views of much more local groups – who may be challenging the councils themselves.

I feel society and government is changing very quickly in ways that go a long way beyond money. These include new sources of power and information, new relations between the citizen and the state, new legal rights and powers and new roles for local rural communities.

The projects in Eden build off people and structures that have been in place for decades, yet the Big Society is nevertheless – surprisingly – fresh and worthwhile. If you were able to visit these projects you would find that something very interesting happening. These are things, which are not recorded in a budgetary allocation. They are shown in people, in a sense of confidence, in a sense of possibility. And in projects, where civil servants prioritise the decisions of the community, bust barriers for them and find public money for them.

These projects can often require some money but they are about much more than money. You cannot measure the government’s idea of the Big Society or its commitment to it, simply by how much money they put into it. Sometimes, the government’s role lies in repealing legislation or changing rules. It is possible for some projects to flourish – as they are in Eden – even at a time of overall cuts in government expenditure. Sometimes the projects don’t require public funds – or often much less public money than under another model.

Our broadband projects are an excellent example of this. We are making fiber-optic go much deeper and further, thanks to community support than it would ever have done if we had relied on traditional government funding. Again, it’s not free but the community role, influence and contribution in Eden will be much larger than in Cornwall broadband for example. It is a different kind of project: cheaper and faster and more creative than a centrally planned project.

I sometimes feel that people come up with so many theoretical objections to the Big Society: money, lack of capacity, danger – that you’d think it would be impossible for it to work; but it does. It reminds me of philosophers proving a bird can’t fly: but it can.

That exactly why I am pressing so hard for people to actually walk on the ground and see what is happening. I suspect that the reason this debate has become so polarised is that people are not visiting and seeing the people and facts on the ground. Put simply they are not seeing what makes Big Society different to other approaches to the citizen.

Please do write in if you have any thoughts you’d like to share…


penrith cinema fundraising campaign

Last Saturday Rory launched a fundraising campaign for the Penrith Cinema by pledging to match any donations up to £1,500. He was immediately matched by local businessman Dave Harding (owner of the Angel Lane Fish and Chip shop), at a rally to save Penrith’s Lonsdale Alhambra cinema on Saturday 29th January. Dozens of others in the crowd – including Eden District Council leader, Gordon Nicolson – followed suit, raising thousands of pounds in a few minutes.

The event, attended by hundreds of supporters of the high-street cinema, brought together the Penrith and Eden community which has been given a deadline of April 30th to raise funds of £750,000 to buy the property, currently owned by Graves (Cumberland) Ltd.

Rory spoke again of the value of the community asset and said: “Everybody here today, and many, many more all over Eden, want this to succeed. All the energy and the enthusiasm that Penrith has been showing has made all the difference. It makes a difference to the kind of deal we can get, and to the negotiations with Graves. This will be a challenging campaign, and we have a lot of money to raise, but people have been calling me up in Westminster every day with suggestions of how to make this work. There is a lot of serious practical, concrete work to be done, but let‘s make sure we can buy this asset. We mustn‘t lost the fun and energy and enthusiasm that the people of Penrith and Eden are showing each week, and it‘s because of that energy that we are now in a position to really join together, raise funds, and buy this for our community to enjoy for years to come.”

On Sunday 30th January Rory also attended a meeting of the steering group – led by  local consultant Ruth Parker, Dawn Coates of QEGS and Adrian Lochhead of Eden Arts – to help formulate the community campaign, to which Rory has also contributed support on finding an office and establishing a website.

eden assessment service

Rory officially opened the new Eden Assessment Service at Penrith Hospital at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday January 28th, and met patients and staff as he was given a tour of the new unit.

The new service provides room for GPs to refer patients for further diagnostics, tests and short-term treatment, allowing more space and time for a clinical team to assess patients in order to get the right diagnosis. The new service allows GPs to refer patients for further investigation, and time to see if the patient might respond to short-term treatment such as IV (intravenous) antibiotics or dehydration treatment. Previously a GP in the Eden would have had to refer a patient further afield for more tests, proving difficult for many patients. The new unit also provides new facilities for Penrith Community Hospital’s minor injuries unit, which has also moved into the revamped area, freeing up its previous location for more out-patient clinic rooms.

Rory said: “It’s a huge honour to be here today and to see new improvements to our hospital. This new unit not only provides fantastic new facilities for patients in our area, but will also mean that fewer patients will be required to travel further out of the area for diagnostic tests and can be treated and diagnosed closer to home, minimising the upheaval that many simply cannot face in times of stress, or illness. It improves our excellent community hospital even more, and I’m proud to see these extra facilities already in use and clearly fulfilling a very necessary need in the local community.”

forestry debate

I am writing this having been in the Forestry debate today in the House of Commons but having had to step out to take a call from one of many constituents who have been contacting me over the last few days to express their concern about the forestry commission. Yesterday, I was one of a group of MPs who met with the Secretary of State to discuss forestry. And yesterday morning I discussed the same issue with Fellow cumbrian MPs of all parties. Like most people, I am very concerned about this policy and the way it is implemented. For more than a decade, I have felt there has been no debate about strategic woodland policy – be it amenity, commercial self sufficiency or land use requirements. We desperately need this.

The Secretary of State has been very clear that the Government will not compromise on the protection of our valuable and biodiverse woods and forests.

That is vital.

There is no doubt that this will be a new approach to ownership and management of forests, with a growing role for the private sector and civil society. But the key point for me lies in how the land is used: the types of trees and habitats, the benefits for biodiversity and conservation – and of course access.

No sale should take place without incredibly detailed scrutiny of private-sector ownership plans. We must ensure that ownership agreements include guarantees of access (perhaps even greater access than already exists), and commitments to the protection of biodiversity.

The central question, I believe, for Cumbria is the question of which areas will be designated as Heritage Forest. It seems clear, for example, that Grizedale should be a heritage forest. Heritage forest can be transferred (with support) to an organisation like the National Trust but it should not be sold to them.

I would like to have ideas and feedback from voluntary organisations and constituents on what areas in Cumbria we should designate as heritage forest and which we should not. I will also be approaching the Forestry Commission, the National Parks, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust and Save Lakeland Forest for their input and ideas and I hope to meet with these groups this coming week. I think this consultation process is a unique opportunity and we need to do all we can to get this right. Please send any details and suggestions. I am also attaching a link to the detailed policy document, please click here to read it.