Monthly Archives: April 2012

In Praise of the Civil Service

A secret: politicians don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t mean that we are all stupid, or lazy (I can sense my father’s arched eye-brows, as I make that claim). But I mean that it is impossible for politicians to know enough. The most successful ones, of course, are brilliant at concealing this: they assimilate quantities of data, remember impressive statistics, and sound convincing on debt and drought, on customs and crime, on Inner Asia and inner ear disease. But watch them at the despatch box, or on question time, replying confidently to a hundred unexpected queries, never saying they don’t know, and you must realise they are performing the impossible.

This is a problem. Because our best hope of making good decisions, or at least avoiding catastrophe, is to have people whose knowledge gives them the ability and confidence to challenge bad policies. Our track record is not good. The US banks continued to invest in credit-default swaps for years; the European Finance Ministers let Greece drift for decades. We invaded Iraq, and sent more and more troops into Afghanistan. Again and again, politicians failed to realise that despite the confident advice, optimistic predictions, and encouraging figures, everything was going very wrong.

Take Tony Blair on Iraq. He was bright, his speeches showed that he was well-briefed: full of obscure and precise statistics, confident about international law, clear about the global order.  But everything he had learnt, everything he believed, everything he expected, was wrong. There were no weapons of mass destruction, there were not their terrorist links, he imagined. He underestimated the strength and nature of the Iraqi opposition, he missed the signs of civil war. International credibility was not – as he predicted – helped by invading Iraq: it was destroyed.

Now, of course, people said so at the time. And some were right for the right reasons, because they had an instinct for the temptations of power and the errors of politicians, and a few because they had a detailed first-hand knowledge of the complexity of Iraq.  But it was easy for Blair to find apparently equally well-informed, thoughtful people who backed his view: to find any number of sophisticated arguments, and statistics, which suggested he was right. None of his senior serving Ambassadors or Generals formally challenged his decision in writing. Not one resigned. Instead, they set about justifying and implementing his policy.

The same errors, the same lack of challenge, exist everywhere. Look at Germany’s disastrous 100 Billion investment in solar energy (98 cents in every Euro was wasted, and the effect according to the standard model, would delay global warming by 23 minutes). Look at why steps were not taken earlier to protect Cumbria from Bovine TB; or the 38 Billion debt run up in the Ministry of Defence; or some of the more catastrophic investment decisions of the North-West development agency. Ultimately all this was the politicians’ fault; but in almost every case, they were taking expert advice, and they never had the knowledge, experience, or confidence to take a different path.

The solution to these problems is not to plug a bigger external hard-drive into a minister’s head. The solution lies with the civil service. In every area – agriculture, small business support, military procurement – we need to continue to promote officials who are well-informed, experienced, and imaginative. Some need to be sector experts, others need the originality to ask questions, which no normal person would ever ask, nor perhaps could ever answer. An agriculture official needs to ask what would be the thirty year impact on farming of improving ‘sites of special scientific interest,’ and what would happen if subsidies ceased to be paid. They need a grasp of Spanish animal movement data-bases, and an even clearer instinct of why we failed to predict the change in New Zealand’s powdered milk exports. They must understand the long-term significance of an edible hamburger that has just been grown in a laboratory, from a stem-cell. They need to have seen first-hand the dangerous unstoppable momentum of fashionable theories.  They need to understand economics, and what economists don’t understand. And they need the courage to challenge treasury officials, and wealthy businessmen.

Perhaps the best contribution we can make to the future of British government is to support the right kind of civil service. It is not a project that fits an election cycle: you need to recruit people today, who may still be in the civil service in forty years’ time, you need to give young people the incentive to get out on the ground, the time to think, and the nimbleness, and courage to challenge conventional wisdom. You need the promotion criteria to ensure that those with the best policy judgement reach the top. You need to recognise when knowledgeable people have become rigid, or lost their desire or energy to fight. And you need to ensure that there is a culture of self-questioning. Politicians are not encyclopaedias, super-power memories, or saints. But they don’t need to be, if they learn how to listen to the right kind of civil servants – and just occasionally when it is clear the whole establishment is digging itself into a hole, to make that lonely decision, and change course.


Rory welcomes “radical, resourceful” 2012 Spring Budget for its positive impact on long-running campaigns in Cumbria


The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has delivered a “radical and resourceful” Spring Budget intended to help Britain “earn its way in the world”. The principles of the budget reflect Rory’s  campaign to rebuild confidence, as an engine for growth. Rory has long argued that broadband investment, and investment in gas generation capacity, will be central to Britain’s future growth. He has also called consistently for a focus on small and medium sized businesses. (Penrith and the Border has more than almost any constituency in Britain).


In an article last week, Rory brought this together with a plea for renewed confidence in Britain’s energy and exports. He said: “This is the Budget we have been campaigning for – and it hits many of our many objectives ‘on the button’.”


The Chancellor stated that his aim was to protect the UK from global instability and to build a stronger, more balanced economy for the future. Reporting positive Office of Budget Responsibility Forecasts, which review upwards their growth forecasts for the British economy to 0.8% this year and 2% next year, the Chancellor pledged to lift the poorest citizens out of tax whilst “unashamedly backing business”.


The Spring Budget also highlights Rory’s long-running campaigns in favour of the converting of gas as an alternative energy source, rather than ineffective and expensive wind turbines. This is recognised by the Chancellor’s announcement of a major package of tax changes to boost oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.


The budget also supports the push for superfast and mobile broadband, with the Chancellor stressing the importance of improved technological infrastructure. He has pledged to deliver ultra-fast broadband to ten UK cities, and launch a £50m fund for smaller cities.


In recognition of the large numbers of small businesses that operate in rural areas, and the major contribution they make to local economies, the Chancellor has announced radical changes to the administration of tax for SMEs, which shall be based on cash passing through the business, for businesses with turnovers of up to £77,000pa, a simplifying of payroll systems, and more assistance for business start-ups.


Rory also welcomed the Chancellor’s measures to double British exports to one trillion pounds this decade, expand UK Export Finance and help smaller firms into new markets, in a move that will bolster the MP’s campaign to increase Cumbria’s livestock exports and open up markets for Cumbrian farm produce.


Rory said: “This is a good budget for Cumbria. For rural areas, where wages are historically lower and business start-ups are common, it contains really good news for both lower income earners – representing the biggest tax break for over 30 years –  and entrepreneurs in need of a foot up into business. It recognises the fact that we all of us have a role to play in our national economic recovery. Times will be tough, but growth forecasts are improving and we have got to grow our confidence nationally: this is the time to increase the tax burden on the wealthiest, whilst encouraging grass-roots growth and easing the burden of cuts on our lower and middle-income earners. I am delighted by the focus on broadband, and gas, and by the news that, by withdrawing from Afghanistan, we will gain a peace dividend of over 2 billion pounds.”


Philip Rheinbach of local firm Top Notch Contractors said: “At a time of great uncertainty, the Chancellor’s announcements convey a surefooted message to private sector business, to which the private sector will respond very positively. George Osborne was asked to make today’s Budget a Budget for business and for growth. It is clear that the measures announced this afternoon are the product of a focused and well thought through strategy for the encouragement of economic growth and for business investment. Beyond the positive message to business, there were some excellent measures and revisions too. The announcements for the increase in personal allowances and in addressing some of the long-standing injustices around the avoidance of paying taxes by curbing tax avoidance schemes in particular stand out.”


Key measures of this year’s Budget that will benefit individual constituents of Penrith and the Border include the raising of the income tax threshold to £9,205, giving young people the skills to compete and enter the workforce, with a record number of apprenticeships on offer, and introducing tax statements that will detail what people have been paid and where it is going. Importantly, no changes to fuel duty plans have been suggested, meaning that the Government will continue to work hard in the face of global spikes in world oil prices to prevent dramatic fluctuations at the petrol pump, an issue that is of particular concern to the MP and his constituents.



Rory welcomes Cybermoor’s tenth anniversary as its fibre-optic Community Share Offer raises funds for infrastructure development

Rory has congratulated Alston Moor’s Cybermoor – “the UK’s first rural fibre-optic community” – on its tenth anniversary, as it enters an exciting new phase of broadband development. Residents and businesses of England’s highest market town on remote Alston Moor in Rory Stewart’s Cumbrian constituency are in line to receive high-speed fibre connections for the next 30 years, heralding faster downloads, better information sharing and enhanced access to telehealth and telecare services and other benefits to the community.

Cybermoor Networks will provide a basis for future investment in digital infrastructure on Alston Moor, building on the existing network and using the latest fibre-optic and wireless technologies. Cybermoor is now seeking pledges to raise an investment of £100,000 by the end of March 2012 in order to complement the £300,000 already secured from the Rural Development Programme for England, and is looking to attract investors from across the UK. The Community Share Offer requires a minimum investment of £100 with an initial 3 year commitment.

Rory said: “Cybermoor has set such high standards of broadband connectivity in rural areas that it is known nationally for all it has achieved. We kicked off our superfast broadband campaign in 2010 with an event in Alston, where broadband Minister Ed Vaizey joined me in paying tribute to its ground-breaking work. Now we want to attract investment for more – literally – ground-breaking advances, with a target of £100,000 of community pledges to purchase and dig fibre-optic cable, demonstrating that communities can build their own fibre broadband networks using local people and finance. I’m extremely excited about the Cybermoor Community Share Offer and the role it will play in bringing new investment to support the development of this vital digital infrastructure.”

Daniel Heery, Cybermoor Project Manager said: “This is a great opportunity for people to invest in a company that will bring benefits to the whole community.  A fibre-optic cable network at the heart of the community will provide high capacity connections to residents and businesses on Alston Moor for the next 30 years, helping to attract people and businesses who want to live in a rural area and benefit from high speed connections. This is a chance to own part of the UK’s first co-operative fibre optic network.”

The fibre network will initially cover the most populous parts of Alston Moor, starting with the centre of Alston town itself and including The Firs, Church Road, Jollybeard and Church Road, but will be extended to cover more remote areas as more investment is raised. Cybermoor Networks will benefit from the expertise already developed by the Cybermoor team and aims to work with local contractors and draw on support from the local community as much as possible to keep costs down (up to 75% of the prices charged by large operators).

The share offer document can be accessed at If you would like to find out more about how to invest, contact the Cybermoor office on 01434 382 808 or e-mail [email protected] .



Rory hails ‘great opportunity for Wigton’ of Prince’s visit


Penrith and the Border’s MP Rory Stewart expressed his delight that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has taken up the local MP’s invitation to visit Wigton, in his constituency, on the 750th anniversary of the town’s Market Charter this year.

The Prince’s Private Office released details of the visit,due  to take place on April 3rd, including engagements at the George Memorial, the Wigton Youth Station, St Mary’s Church and the Market Hall, and the hammering of the first chisel of the new Market Cross.

Rory, who once tutored Princes William and Harry and has run one of the Prince’s charities, Afghanistan’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation, speaking  before the visit said: “I am absolutely exhilarated by the fantastic news that His Royal Highness will be visiting Wigton this year, following my invitation last year. His work on urban regeneration has been ahead of its time, and he has long shown his commitment to Cumbria; it is absolutely wonderful that Wigton will receive this recognition, particularly when it has been working so hard to make so many improvements to the town.”

Local Wigton Councillor Joe Cowell said: “We’re delighted that the Prince of Wales will be coming to Wigton this year, and are enormously grateful to our MP Rory Stewart, who first invited the Prince and has made sure that he scheduled this visit in the year of our market charter anniversary.”






Local farmers pilot stock movement App in latest broadband initiative

In the latest chapter of his campaign to improve super-fast and mobile broadband for Cumbria, Rory in conjunction with Terry Canning of farming software company FarmWizard has secured a new mobile phone application trial for Penrith and the Border’s dairy farmers.

FarmWizard, who have been developing cloud-computing solutions for livestock dairy farmers since 2004, will be coming to the constituency within the coming weeks to launch their newest application for Android and i-Phones which will allow livestock farms to access animal information directly on their smart phones without the need for computer access. Events such as calvings and other breeding events can be recorded using the handset and then synchronised with the main FarmWizard website, automatically updating the farmer’s movement book, BCMS and, if required, Holstein UK and either NMR or CIS milk records.  The new Web App’s offline accessibility allows for information to be accessed and recorded without a data connection which can then be synchronised when within 3G or Wi-fi coverage.


Rory said: “FarmWizard are one of the UK’s most innovative companies working in this field, and I am delighted that we have secured this trial for our dairy farmers. It complements our broadband campaign in a way that is practical, potentially bringing enormous benefits to our farmers and, hopefully, leading the way to more applications that will make farm record management easier and more effective. I’m really excited to be working closely with FarmWizard on this.”


All interested farmers can get a free trial of the web app if they pre-register on the website at



Rory rates Crosby Ravensworth’s Affordable Housing

Rory paid his latest visit to the local affordable housing site at Crosby Ravensworth in mid-March and called it “an inspiration and model for Cumbria”. The new development provides 12 affordable homes in the centre of the village of Crosby Ravensworth, built around a ‘village green’ modelled on Dufton, and carefully designed to fit in with vernacular architecture – as well as being cheap to build.

The MP, who has been closely involved with the project over the last 2 years as the leader of the Eden Big Society Vanguard project, saw the site with Lyvennet Community Trust (LCT) trustees David Graham and Doug Henderson, Penrith-based Atkinson Homes site supervisor Lewis Austwick, and architect Ian Smart of Kirkby Stephen-based ipsarchitects. They looked at the homes that are under construction and discussed their design.

The site includes 12 affordable homes – 10 rented and 2 shared ownership – and the Trust are currently reviewing applicants against the Local Occupancy criteria. It is expected that the houses will be ready for occupation in late May/early June. The project, which has helped shape national housing grant policy and has been a positive symbol for community land trusts across Britain, has been a remarkable community achievement, and is pioneering ways of designing affordable housing in a way that complements local vernacular architecture in a cost-effective way.

Rory said: “It’s enormously exciting to see this housing project finally coming to completion after so much hard work by the LCT, and to see us pioneering rural affordable housing that can be built in a way that complements the local landscape and village design. Using local builders, suppliers and materials – such as limestone and sandstone – and with a little imagination and flexibility, the builders have managed to create a scheme that is a wonderful addition to the village, proving that housing can remain affordable and look beautiful, too. Once again we are leading the way in national policy, and raising the profile of community land trusts in a practical and accessible way. I want to see much more of this sort of development in Penrith and the Border, and strongly encourage other communities to come and see what is being done here.”

The site also includes a further 8 self-build plots, with sales being handled by Penrith Farmer and Kidds. There is an open day on 25th March between 1200 and 1600hrs.



Photo: Rory Stewart MP with LCT Trustees David Graham and Doug Henderson and Atkinson Homes Site Supervisor Lewis Austwick



Rory launches Cumbrian Community Pub Lunch Campaign

In mid-March, Rory launched the first of what he hopes will be a new model for Cumbrian lunch clubs for the elderly. The Lyvennet Lunch Club’s luncheon meeting at the Crosby Ravensworth community pub, the Butcher’s Arms, was conceived by councillor Joan Raine, in order to provide a social group for the elderly, while bringing much needed income to a community-owned pub. The idea emerged from a meeting, earlier in the year, between Eden District Council Chair and Crosby Ravensworth resident Joan Raine, Rory Stewart, James Airey (Cumbria County Council portfolio holder for Adult Social Care), and Eden District Councillor and ‘business ambassador’ Debbie Wicks. Following last week’s launch event it is hoped that more rural pubs will join the movement to host community events on their premises, providing a social outlet for residents who are unable to travel further, and an income for the pub.

The luncheon club was attended by 20 locals as well as Sue Maughan from Age UK, Mike Clayton of Pub is the Hub, Councillor Debbie Wicks, and representatives of Orton’s George Hotel. Local churches were represented by the Reverend Phil Dew and Alex Barbour of St Lawrence’s church. Members ate scampi and shepherd’s pie followed by spotted dick whilst Rory mingled and chatted with those present before giving a brief talk on the importance of the event, and – as a share-holder of the pub – his strong support for the venture.

Rory said: “Our rural pubs have the potential to be so much more, when one considers that they can also play host to a range of other services, such as bases for Meals on Wheels, local mini-libraries, and meetings places for clubs such as this one. I greatly enjoyed meeting the lunch club members today and hearing at first-hand how much they value the experience of getting together socially in this sort of environment. Clearly, it benefits both pub and community, and I would love to do all I can to support other communities wishing to follow the lead of Crosby Ravensworth. I will be staying in close touch with those at Cumbria County Council who are looking carefully at this model, and hope to see its benefits replicated in other rural communities in Cumbria.”

Councillor Joan Raine said: “We are delighted to have Rory’s support and backing for this initiative, which we believe will bring real benefits to communities. As an employee of Age UK I have real insight into the needs of our growing elderly population, as well as the need to share services in the current economic climate. This seems the perfect way to solve many problems at once.”


Councillor Joan Raine and Rory with community members at the launch

Rory’s plea for the future of Cumbria’s constituency boundaries

Rory has renewed his call to constituents to engage in the ongoing public consultation into the Boundary Commission for England’s (BCE) proposed constituency boundary changes, which were met in Cumbria with widespread criticism when first published last September. He spoke following the BCE’s online publication of all representations made during its public hearings last October. More than 40,000 people nationally responded to the BCE’s attempt to redraw the parliamentary constituency map, with almost 1,000 representations made in the north-west.  Of the dozens who spoke at the public hearings in Carlisle last October, almost 90% were strongly against the proposals, and supportive of the three main political parties’ counter-proposals, which were broadly aligned.


There follows a brief period until midday on April 3rd 2012 in which the public can once again send their representations to the BCE, and more information can be found online at


Rory said: “This is the last chance for residents of Cumbria to make their views known to the Boundary Commission before they report back later in the year with – we hope – amended proposals. Cumbria’s voice has been heard loud and clear: we do not support these proposals, and there are sensible counter-proposals that can and should be adopted. Please, if you feel strongly about this, do not hesitate to send your comments to the Commission as quickly as possible before April 3rd.“


Rory Stewart supports community shares event

Rory  highlighted the importance of  encouraging Cumbrian social enterprises and co-operatives to raise money using community shares  at a free event which took place on Wednesday 28th March at the Penrith Players Theatre.

The day-long event was  organised by Alston-based broadband co-operative Cybermoor, which itself raised £10k in four weeks via community shares to upgrade internet services in Alston Moor. Cybermoor aimed to secure another £90k by 31 March.

Event participants gained practical advice on how to set up a community share offer and drive take-up, the pitfalls to avoid and the administration involved. Social entrepreneurs who have successfully raised finance this way shared their experiences.

Rory said: “Cumbria is at the national vanguard of social enterprise, boasting incredible community share schemes, many of which are right here in Penrith and the Border:  the Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, the Nenthead Community Shop, and the Butcher’s Arms at Crosby Ravensworth to name some of the more prominent ones. Communities should be encouraged to invest in themselves. We are perfectly suited to these sorts of schemes, and I encourage all interested communities to attend this important event.”

Daniel Heery, Project Manager at Cybermoor Networks said: “Community share schemes are popular in Cumbria because of the challenges involved in making rural businesses succeed. Conventional companies can struggle to generate enough income and investment due to the region’s sparse population. Alternative finance schemes such as community share offers spread the investment and the risk across the community, helping rural businesses to survive.”


Article first published in the Daily Telegraph on 4 April 2012.

I am that strange creature: a believer in the Big Society. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has not given up on it – despite all the criticism – but has returned to it this week; that the Localism Act is being implemented; and that the £600 million Big Society Capital fund was launched yesterday.

What makes me so keen? What I have experienced living in Cumbria. Here, we have found that Big Society can’t be reduced to new laws, or money: it is about attitudes. Big Society means forcing government and companies to bend to the will of communities, and their imagination, their values, and their energy.

The problem I found, when I became an MP in 2010, was not that communities did not work – they had always been working. It was that they were being prevented from doing much more. I found this in a dozen things, which might seem small from London, but which were the key to rural lives: in communications, energy, housing, tourism (our largest earner), and broadband, which can hold the key to the success of rural health, education, and thousands of small businesses.

Ravonstonedale wasn’t allowed to hire a contractor to build a cycle path. Appleby was blocked from installing a hydro-electric scheme. Morland wasn’t permitted to clear out its own mill race after the floods. Crosby Ravensworth couldn’t build the affordable housing it wanted. And none of us could get decent broadband.

We had tried to solve these things on our own, and we had failed. Ten years ago, the government spent £20 million on broadband in Cumbria: the results were pathetic. So instead of paying BT £50 a metre to dig in fibre-optic cable, we dug the trenches ourselves, installed our own equipment, and looked at connecting directly to Manchester. It didn’t go well. I enjoyed digging a trench in a frosty field in Warcop – but it wasn’t flat or straight enough. One enthusiast went within an inch of breaking a high-pressure gas line. Businessmen and public servants, who paid for their own system, were unable to get commercial services; when it collapsed, they were left with no phone line.

We finally solved our problems when, instead of going completely independent, we made government and business work with our communities. Being a Big Society project meant that two civil servants, Anton Draper and Mike Kiely, travelled up to Cumbria from London week after week. They helped us secure some public money (much less than it would have cost the government without community help, but money none the less). And we used this promise of government cash to make companies compete, to prove what they could do for our villages.

Suddenly, firms showed us what we had not seen before – how they could deliver broadband with slivers of glass, with copper, with mobile cells, with TV signals, with power cables, with satellites. And in return, when the Government or a company said there was a problem, we solved it. When they said there wasn’t demand, our volunteers visited more than 1,000 houses, and convinced 70 per cent of them to pay for better broadband. When they said they couldn’t afford to pay landowners to run cables through their fields, their neighbours convinced the farmers to drop the charge. When quotes for digging were too high, we convinced local digger drivers to lay cable to the highest standard, for a very low cost. And for the first time, we convinced BT and others that if we did all this work, they should connect us free of charge to their existing network.

None of this was easy. Government had to learn how to redesign £550 million worth of broadband contracts nationwide in ways that include community projects – and to get round European “state aid” rules. There was a moment when Cumbria county council was suggesting that every community should be treated the same, regardless of how much work they had done. This would have stopped them from ever supporting the project – just at the time when we need their ingenuity, and support, more than ever. Companies, too, had to learn to be equally flexible.

But we’ve succeeded – and not just in showing how the fastest broadband in Europe can go to the most remote valleys in Britain. We have been able to achieve everything we set out to do two years ago, from the cycle path to the mill race. If central government had tried to force social housing into Crosby Ravensworth, there would have been rage. But because the community has driven it, there are now 20 affordable homes in the village centre – cheap, attractive to live in, supported by the community and beautiful.

The Big Society is not a fund, or a law – it’s an attitude, a way for government, firms and charities to use communities’ energy. It’s not something you can show on a PowerPoint presentation. But if you want to see how it works, come to Cumbria.