Monthly Archives: January 2012

Make IT Happy 2012

Rory has for the third year running invited schools in Penrith and the Border to take part in the national “Make IT Happy” competition, a UK-wide technology challenge for primary school students aged 9 to 11. Rory has supported the competition since his election to Parliament, and has seen schools from his constituency take the North-West regional prize for two years in a row, with Shankhill School winning in 2010 and High Hesket School winning in 2011. The competition is run by the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR) and e-skills UK, the Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology, and is backed by more than 60 MPs from across the UK.

Rory said: “It’s a real pleasure to support this excellent competition, which recognises and rewards the excellent and inspirational work that primary schools do with IT, and particularly how they use it to make a positive impact on their own and others’ lives. It fits perfectly with my campaign for better broadband in our constituency, and highlights the importance of involving all age groups in the campaign to educate communities about the value of internet access. This year’s Make IT Happy theme of “Make IT Healthy” calls for schools to use IT to improve their own physical, mental or emotional health, or to reach out to help others do the same. I encourage all schools to try and participate, and hope we can produce a winner for a third year running!


£1,200 will be awarded to each of the regional competition finalists, with the overall winning school taking home an additional cash prize of £4,000. Winners will also be invited to attend an awards ceremony to be held at the Houses of Parliament in London in June 2012. The closing date for entries is April 8, 2012.


Discussing rural communities at No.10

In his role as Treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Rural Services – Rory was one of the leaders of a cross-party coalition, which yesterday pushed the Prime Minister for a fairer deal for rural communities. The group had requested and been granted a private meeting with the Prime-Minister at 10 Downing Street. Rory was joined by Parliamentary colleagues Graham Stuart (Conservative), Tessa Munt (Liberal Democrats), Simon Hart (Conservative), Pat Glass (Labour) and Nigel Evans (Conservative), representing a variety of rural constituencies, from Cumbria to Yorkshire’s Ribble Valley, the West Country and Wales. They told the Prime Minister that rural areas were being consistently disadvantaged across the UK.


The Prime Minister was told that rural areas receive less funding per capita, have fewer services, and pay higher taxes. The cross-party group also discussed the need for funding for rural fire services, schools and colleges, and transport. The Prime Minister said that he was very keen to work with the group on looking for innovative solutions to rural problems – and focused particularly on the benefits of sharing facilities. The Prime Minister said he took a particular interest because he himself represents the second-most sparsely populated constituency in the south-east – of 400 square miles. He asked the group to suggest more measures which could support rural areas over the coming months.


Rory said: “I pushed the Prime Minister on three issues: on looking at revising the sparsity formula, when allocating funding; on the need to get rid of needless requirements and egulations, which are obstacles to the successful running of local services; and on the very worrying issue of charity procurement processes, where too often small, local charities are subsumed by larger national bodies. I was delighted that he also paid special tribute to our broadband initiatives in Cumbria, which are so crucial to improving the infrastructure that we need to flourish as a rural community.”


The meeting with the Prime Minister was the first step in a cross-party campaign for a fairer deal for rural areas. Rory has also championed Cumbria’s potential to be one of six national ‘Rural Growth Network’ pilots, on the same day that stakeholders met at Newton Rigg college to discuss the format of the county-wide bid.


Rory said: “There is no doubt in my mind that Cumbria is perfectly suited to be a Rural Growth Network. I think we can make great use of our existing networks – such as the Farmer Network, and the Rural Women’s Network – and build on them, thinking of innovative ways to bring enterprise support and education direct to communities. This might take the form of using village halls as training hubs, or looking at ways to make rural apprenticeships more suited to our youth, and I have no doubt that we will put together a really strong bid to make Cumbria a pioneer in rural enterprise.”


It is thought that the pilot Regional Growth Networks – which will operate in rural areas that were considered inappropriate for Enterprise Zones – will consist of a number of relatively small ‘enterprise hubs’ on underused business parks, or brownfield sites, and will provide essential infrastructure to existing rural businesses and start-ups. It will offer particular support for women-led enterprises, and aims to overcome barriers of lack of access, infrastructure and business support. First stage bids are to be submitted by January 21st 2012, and chose pilots are expected to be announced in March.


Picture below: Left to right: Pat Glass MP, Tessa Munt MP, Nigel Evans MP, the Prime Minister, Graham Stuart MP, Simon Hart MP, and Rory Stewart MP


Penrith Railway Station


In the latest stage of his campaign to improve access to the northbound platform at Penrith railway station, Rory has written to the four pre-qualified bidders for the InterCity West Coast franchise to ask for their commitment to undertake upgrades at the station as a part of their bid document. On the recommendation of the Minister of State, the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers, with whom Rory has discussed the issue, he has contacted the four bidders to highlight the strong local support for this initiative, and to ask for their recognition of the concern that exists about the current barrow crossing, which Rory considers “outdated and dangerous”.


Rory said: “Penrith still has an outdoor barrow-crossing, which is used to access the station’s second (northbound) platform from the main station entrance. I believe it is one of the only main branch line stations in the UK that still has one of these crossings. The disabled, elderly, unwell, mothers with prams, and those with cumbersome luggage are obliged to use this barrow-crossing in all weathers throughout the year, and complaints about the suitability of the crossing are increasing. I fear it is outdated and dangerous, and the station now urgently needs an upgrade.”


“There is enormous support locally – both from the community, the local authorities, station staff, and the emergency services – for improved access. This campaign is growing, and becoming more vocal. Ideally, given constraints of space, the station could be fitted with a lift or perhaps a ramp. However, we are open to suggestions. I have personally asked for the bidders’ commitment in their bid document to an upgrade of existing access between platforms one and two. This year’s franchise seems the ideal opportunity to ensure that Penrith does not get left behind: it is a key station on the north-west route, is always busy, and serves to transport the many, many visitors who come to the north lakes throughout the year.”


The Minister of State Theresa Villiers said: “We do recognise the importance of accessibility in those parts of our rail network which date largely from the nineteenth century, and were designed at a time when mobility needs were considered differently. We hope very much the Penrith will be considered under any extension to the Access for All programme, which aims to deliver obstacle-free routes to 148 UK stations by 2015. However, I support Rory’s campaign to ask franchise bidders to include commitments to station improvements in their tenders.”


Bids are due to be submitted to the Department for Transport by May 1st 2012, with the successful franchisee being awarded on August 13th 2012. The new franchise will commence on December 9th 2012.


More information can be found here.


Rory meets with Minister for Agriculture

Rory has spoken with Minister of State for Agriculture and Food Jim Paice to discuss the potential impact on Penrith and the Border of the successor to the Rural Development Regulation, following Defra’s recent publication of a discussion paper on the EU Commission’s regulatory proposals for Common Agricultural Policy reform post-2013. Rory believes that the farming community in Penrith and the Border has a unique opportunity to engage in this public consultation, which will close on 5th March 2012 and which can be accessed online here.

This discussion paper invites views from farmers, environmental groups, rural communities, non-governmental organisations and other interested parties on the European Commission’s recently published Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Regulatory proposals for the period 2014 – 2020, which were released on 12 October 2011.

Rory said: “I would like to encourage Penrith and the Border’s farming community – and indeed anyone living in our rural constituency who takes an interest – to engage in this consultation and reflect on how these proposals may impact on rural Cumbria. Some proposals may have significant potential impacts on us, including a proposed replacement of the Single Payment Scheme, revised rules which will guide the next Rural Development Programme in England, and new initiatives such as ‘greening’, ‘capping’ and a dedicated ‘small farmers’ scheme. A reduction in the number and detail of the current Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions and Statutory Management Requirements are also proposed. I hope very much that individual farmers and farming groups from the constituency will take a look at the document and make their views known.”

Negotiations have now commenced between all 27 member states of the European Union to discuss the detail of the regulatory proposals and the European Parliament has started consideration of the proposals. Defra is seeking the views of interested parties to help inform the UK negotiating position, which also takes account of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland interests. It will be some time before the proposals are finalised and for the first time, in relation to CAP reform proposals, agreement between the European Commission and the European Parliament is required under the ‘co-decision’ terms of the Lisbon treaty. The Commission and Council have an ambition to secure agreement by the end of 2012 to allow implementation on 1 January 2014. However, as with all other elements of the proposals, this will form part of the negotiation. Further consultation and assessment of the impact of implementation will be carried out at the appropriate time.

triumph for rural mobile coverage

The long parliamentary campaign to bring mobile coverage to rural areas ended in victory today, as OFCOM finally announced proposals to increase broadband coverage to an estimated 98% of the UK population.

Traditionally, up to 6 million people in Britain have been excluded from good mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas. (Mobile phone companies were only obliged to cover 95% of the population, 90% of the time). Rory  has made the campaign to increase the coverage the heart of his new career in parliament. He has argued that the lack of coverage cripples rural areas, their businesses and services. The campaign first attracted national attention when the MP – a new backbencher – introduced and steered a full debate on the floor of the House of Commons on 19 May 2011. His motion, urging OFCOM to increase the coverage to at least 98 % drew the support of over 120 MPs from all parties, and more than fifty spoke in the debate – see the link here. The motion itself received more MPs’ signatures than any previous motion in living memory and it was carried unanimously at the end of a 3 hour debate.

In October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer responded to the debate by committing an extra 150 million pounds to build thousands of new mobile phone masts to cover rural areas. In November the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee slammed OFCOM’s coverage target of 95% as ‘unambitious’ and backed Rory’s call for a 98%  coverage obligation. In today’s announcement, OFCOM proposes options which should ensure that 98% or more of the population receives 4G mobile broadband coverage. This means that millions who currently do not have a mobile signal will now receive one, and that millions more will have their signal upgraded from a 2G ‘voice’ signal to a 4G signal, capable of carrying broadband data.

This investment will transform the fortunes of thousands of small and medium sized businesses, currently hamstrung by inadequate mobile phone and internet coverage. Hundreds of thousands of homes, schools, farms and businesses will get access to decent mobile and internet coverage for the first time.

Rory said: “It is fantastic that OFCOM has responded to Parliament’s campaign in this way. We need growth in Britain and this investment will transform our businesses and economy. Almost nothing has a more dramatic effect on the growth of small businesses than giving them good broadband and mobile access. It allows them to compete more quickly, more cheaply, and in some cases worldwide. High quality mobile signals will also allow sparsely populated rural areas to finally use the incredible new technological opportunities. We can transform health through telemedicine, and education through distance learning. I want to pay tribute to the hard work of so many backbench MPs, who have joined me in lobbying Ministers for just such a measure on behalf of their rural constituents for so long. We also need to acknowledge the incredible work of the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Broadband Minister, the Head of Ofcom, and all their officials, in making this possible.  Improving mobile coverage and broadband is the single most effective thing this government can do encourage economic growth in rural areas. It will transform rural services and productivity.”

The policy is perhaps the most dramatic example of success from the controversial new system of ‘backbench business committee debates’, whereby backbenchers can propose motions and challenge government policy. In this case, unusually, the backbench motion won government support. Broadband Minister, Ed Vaizey, responded to Rory’s motion in the debate, saying: “for one so young and so new to the House, his ability to gauge the issues which concern the house are second to none.’ DEFRA minister Richard Benyon praised “Rory Stewart’s visionary speech and the leadership he is giving in broadband and on improving mobile coverage.” The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, added: ‘I was particularly impressed by Rory Stewart’s approach and advocacy of broadband and mobile coverage for Cumbria. He and the Cumbrian communities should be very proud of what they have achieved.”

home rule for cumberland

It is easy to see Cumbria as the North-West frontier. Our land seems marked by frontiers. Even Rome, which merged and melted what is now most of the European Union, and the Arab League, had its border here. You could ride from modern Iraq, through Romania and Belgium, on fine roads, using a single language, in a single state, until, half-way between Brampton and Longtown, Rome stopped. Through the middle ages, Cumbrians held our land in a border tenancy, were ruled with a border law, and were ravaged by a border war. And even today, the frontiers exist in more than motorway signs. When I gave a talk in Penton last month I was speaking to farmers from a five mile radius, and yet you could identify every Scot in the room, because 200 yards across the border the accent changed completely.  Little wonder that our constituency is the only one in Britain with Border in its name.

And yet for seven hundred years, what is now the border, was not a border but the centre of a single kingdom, half in modern England, half in modern Scotland, independent of both, and belonging to neither. We were not in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, and our patron saints – Mungo, Kentigern, even Ninian – were not English saints. But nor were we  – despite the pretensions of King David (who mined his silver in Alston) –  part of Scotland either. We were an independent Kingdom, sometimes Rheged, Strathclyde, the old North, Yr Hen Ogledd, but always Cumbria. A nation with its own language, spoken long before the Roman conquest: before the sea-borne Irish Gaelic speaking invaders of Scotland, or the sea-borne Anglo-Saxon speaking invaders of England. And with our own line of Kings, with their bards and genealogists: so confident that long after the Romans left, they still led their warriors into the Highlands, to Tyneside, and to the edge of Wales. So legitimate, that even when their kingdom had been reduced to a narrow stretch between Carlisle and the Clyde, Owen of Cumbria was still treated as a brother-King, alongside Athelstan of England and Constantine of Scotland, at the treaty, signed on our land at Eamont bridge.

But stand in the central lobby in Parliament and you will see the arms and saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but of our old, central kingdom, no trace. Where did the nation of Cumbria go? Why did we not reappear? The United Nations has many artificial confections, some of which we have invented and invaded, from Iraq to Libya. The scattered islands, Christian and Hindu, Animist and Muslim, of South-East Asia, have been reconfigured as Indonesia. Beside the Adriatic Sea, even mountainous Montenegro has become a nation. But Cumbria, independent for longer, larger and more populous, has not.

Our neighbour, Alex Salmond, is concocting his own independent nation, partially through denying an older Cumbrian identity. Just as highland bagpipes and highland kilts are imposed on the Lowlands that had nothing to do with either, so too from Gretna, North, there are now road-signs in a language that was never spoken between Edinburgh and Dumfries at any time in human history. ‘Failte gu alba’ is a jingle in a dialect of Irish Gaelic, placed in the centre of a land which, when it spoke Celtic at all, spoke Cumbric.

No nation, even Cumbria, is inevitable and eternal. Like the Phillipines or El Salvador, Cumbria grew out of an artificial colony: the backbone of our kingdom was that extravagant exercise in imperial megalomania called Hadrian’s Wall, that planted 14 forts, 80 castles, 240 towers, and subsidised and paid tens of thousands of men for three hundred years. Like them, too, our nation was not a single people but a land of immigrants of many faiths: the Romano-British Cumbrians mixed with descendants of the Anglians, who built the cross at Bewcastle, the Norse worshippers of Odin at Oddendale, and the Syrian archers whose god lay at Kirkby Thore.  And the modern reinvention of Cumbria that destroyed our precious counties in 1974 excluded our older hinterland in Dumfries and Clydeside.

But something more than lines on a map sustained our kingdom for seven hundred years after the Romans left, and made it the last Celtic-speaking part of England. When the ancient Britons had been driven from everywhere else, something drew them here: still counting their sheep in the old language, in places still named in Cumbric: Lyvennet, Blencathra, Penrith. Some aspect of our sea-fringed moors and fells, of our city: the culture of King Urien of Rheged, Urien “city-born”, “Urien Y Eochydd, “Lord of the Rip-tide”, then and now, gave us an identity quite distinct, and almost national.

Willie Whitelaw first stood in Penrith and the Border against William Brownrigg. Some of Mr. Brownrigg’s programme seems a little anachronistic: fair wages for mole-catchers, the reintroduction of cock-fighting, no clipping the tails of Clydesdales. Mr Brownrigg did not recognise Cumbria’s traditional territories of Dumfries and Westmorland, and he only received 368 votes. But he half-sensed something in us, which never existed in Wiltshire or Norfolk, when he demanded, in his 1955 election address, “Home Rule for Cumberland”.