happy new year
As I write, the sun is setting on 2010: a year of two severe winters. Many Cumbrians have struggled with the soaring costs of heating oil, with the roads and with the cold. Now, it is warmer outside my cottage than in: the sheep are no longer burrowing in snow, the last of the ice is melting on the track and there are snowdrops pushing through the earth in the pail on the front step. I received scores of letters over Christmas with suggestions on how we might cope better with the times and the weather: farmers offered tractors to grit local roads, schoolchildren volunteered to clear paths, retired people suggested donating their Winter Fuel allowances to those in need. Please keep sending ideas.
My priority for 2011 is to ensure Penrith and the Border flourishes. We are not in any way a ‘typical’ constituency. In fact we are in many ways an extreme: with more upland and commons than anywhere else in England; the most sparsely populated constituency in England, with a record distance from public services; and with unique community assets, from Britain’s first community-owned pub to its only community-owned ambulance. We have a very high involvement in voluntary organisations (and we have seen this winter the amazing performance of Mountain Rescue, Hospice at Home, the Air Ambulance and so many others). We have record numbers of self-employed people and micro-businesses. We have low wages, rural poverty and unusually high numbers of elderly residents. We, therefore, don’t need only to predict national challenges, from commodity prices, European agricultural policy and floods to economic growth; we need also to anticipate their effect on this unique part of Britain. Only Cumbrian communities have the knowledge, the power and the legitimacy to find the best solutions for Cumbria.
A new government is an opportunity to build on the policy which we’ve already begun to shape. Many of the government’s values – from liberty to localism – fit with Cumbrian traditions. The Big Society has existed in Cumbria for centuries. In the last six months, Eden has been made the rural Big Society vanguard for the country, drawing civil servants and ministers up from London to study our success; our GPs have been hailed as a national model; we have won the pilot for national citizen service; members of Obama’s team came to the Penrith conference to look at our approach to broadband, and we have now won the national broadband pilot. We have, therefore, been able to access money, official support, and the interest of ministers. This has allowed our communities to help shape and define national policy. Our initiatives and ideas are flowing to other rural parts of Britain.
Many of the best initiatives are at a local level. I am looking forward this month to visiting the community-owned snowplough in Nenthead, and supporting Alston’s ‘Save our Shops’ campaign, to opening a community-run ‘Broadband Meets Localism’ conference, organised by Ronnie Auld (Chair of the Carlisle Parish Councils Association) and to holding the inaugural meeting of the Young Farmers’ advisory committee. I hope to work with my fellow Cumbrian MPs to discuss Cumbrian issues, such as the vital role of carers, and the future of our wonderful community hospitals. But we must also be part of a national story. By the Spring the majority of government ministers involved in community and local government, the environment and agriculture should have visited Penrith and the Border. We will use their visits to educate them about our needs, and to convince them to defend our interests from dairy farming to rural poverty. I will invite national speakers and host debates in Cumbria, on themes from community history to affordable housing.
And although I generally look forward to my three days a week in Cumbria more than my four days a week in Westminster, there are real opportunities amidst the rituals, questions, speeches, meetings, late-night voting and committees. I was lucky enough to be elected as the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on local democracy, and as an officer on the groups for upland farming, mountain rescue and rural services. I will be very actively involved in the new localism bill. All this also should help us to shape national policy.
My dream for 2011 is that Cumbrian communities will be able to challenge powerful business and government. Parishes will write their own planning policy. Villages will take over and save pubs, libraries and shops. Communities will build affordable rural housing. Well-organised campaigns will continue to block inappropriate wind-turbines. Farmers will force government to confront supermarkets. Communities will build their own superfast broadband. The internet will give citizens more information, more control of policy-makers; rural businesses will access bigger markets; remote communities will access better health and education. Communities know more, care more and can do more than distant officials. I’d like, with your support, to help make 2011 a revolution for rural communities.
Please sign up to our Cumbrian broadband petition on www.broadbandcumbria.com. And I hope you have a happy and successful new year.