From May 2010 to November 2019 I had the privilege to be the Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border – the largest, most sparsely populated constituency in England. It includes the Northern Pennines, the Northern Lake District, and the Western section of Hadrian’s Wall. Its boundaries include 40 miles of the Scottish-English border on the north, and mountain peaks – in the east the peak of Cross Fell, in the south the Howgills and Shap Fell, in the west the peaks of Helvellyn and Blencathra. The boundaries emerge historically from the traditional boundaries of the medieval Warden of the Western March, and earlier those of the historical independent Kings of Cumbria (a Kingdom, belonging to neither Scotland or England, whose last King died in 1016).
The constituency encompasses all of Eden – the most sparsely populated district in England – as well as the most sparsely populated parish in England. It has low incomes (an average income of 16,000 pounds a year). It has an ageing population (which is growing towards 35 per cent over the age of 65). It faces serious challenges of fuel poverty (due to the cost of heating traditional homes, and the long distances needed to travel). There has been a serious lack of affordable housing for young families. The constituency has the country’s largest concentration of upland areas (high moorlands with difficult thin soil).
The isolated, rural nature of the constituency (it can take up to two hours to get from one end of the constituency to the other by car) creates a problem for providing government services. Penrith and The Border inherited very poor mobile and broadband infrastructure, making communications problematic. It faces unique challenges in education and health – in Alston for example, the highest market town in England, the constituency supports England’s smallest secondary school, and in Kirkby Stephen, the grammar school has England’s smallest sixth form. It maintains a very large number of small, isolated primary schools and has more community hospitals than any other constituency in Britain (Brampton, Alston, Penrith, and Wigton).
Penrith and The Border is also however, in many ways an economic success story. It has very low unemployment (with many people holding down multiple jobs), and more self-employed people than almost any other constituency in Britain. 23 per cent of the population work from home, and 93 per cent work for businesses employing less than ten. The dominant sectors of the economy are farming and tourism. Farming is largely livestock farming, with a particular focus on upland sheep farming, and – in the lower ground – dairy farming (Cumbria is the ‘milk field’ of England). Outdoor activities (it contains the headquarters of Outward Bound) are a growing sector, contributing more than a hundred million pounds to the economy every year. Community-led projects in broadband, energy, neighbourhood planning, pub buy-outs, and affordable housing have become national pilots – and models for other parts of rural Britain. It consistently ranks as ‘one of the happiest places to live in Britain’.