focusing on cumbria
I’m writing this after sitting up till 2.45am with 600 fellow MPs to vote on the budget. The speeches were remarkable more for their length than their content. And as the hours passed, tired politicians seemed to fall back, like old war horses, on familiar phrases: words like ‘challenge’, ‘opportunity’, ‘cuts’ and then – a more recent addition – the ‘Big Society’. I passed the time wondering how such slogans apply to Cumbria.
The phrase ‘we must eliminate the structural deficit through 25 per cent cuts’ may be accurate but does not convey the pain that we will feel over the next four years. Penrith and the Border is in a stronger position than most, but there will be real losses. And my experience of running a charity and working in government has taught me how difficult this can be. The axe which does the cutting is always blunter than we would like.
Our constituency economy has the highest rate of self-employed people and micro-businesses in the country, so we will benefit from the chancellor’s exemptions for small businesses and (because much of our economy is based on tourism) from the decision to scrap special taxes on furnished lettings. The Chancellor has promised to consider a fuel discount for rural areas. But we will also remain deeply disadvantaged by our sparse population and great distances. Alston must keep its cottage hospital and school – nothing proved this more directly to me than when I walked from Alston to Renwick over Hartside this winter when the road was closed. But the high school is about to become the smallest single high school in Britain. Patients from Kirkby Stephen already need to travel to Carlisle for hospital services – which could be a three-hour round trip. Every year the pressure builds to close local sites, amalgamate and centralise on cities. Over 2,000 schools have closed since 1997 and 330 clinics and hospitals; and that was at a time of massive increases in public spending.
The first sign of the future was last week’s proposal to close the Penrith Magistrates’ Court on that grounds that it is ‘underused and inadequate’. Penrith’s closure would mean that a witness or defendant from Kirby Stephen would have to make the 100-mile round trip to Carlisle to have his or her case heard. The planned closure would also be a blow to local justice: who can expect magistrates in Carlisle to know a place and a community 50 miles away, well enough to see that justice is done?
There will be a real temptation to wait until each cut is announced before fighting it individually. We have done it in the past. I am doing something similar trying to safeguard Newton Rigg, through ten hours of meetings this past week alone. But the time is coming when we are going to have to see all these threats as symptoms of a single disease: the government’s reluctance to respect the rural, the local and the particular. I made myself unpopular in my first meeting as Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Services by saying that rather than just limiting ourselves to defending rural hospitals and schools, we needed to get into the Treasury and fight for all rural services together. And although I won the argument in the Group, I may not in the Treasury.
The coming years are going to call for energy from all of us. I will have to make sure every Minister is focused on Cumbria and our needs. All of us will have to work out how to make sure the cuts are controlled: making it clear what we are never prepared to give up, what is a waste and what we can reluctantly lose. All this will draw on real reserves of ingenuity and self-reliance. I began by saying that our advantage in this crisis will be the shape of our economy but perhaps our strongest advantage is Cumbrian culture itself – the same culture that has supported the Air Ambulance, set up bus services from the Fell-runner in the East of the constituency to the Northern Fells Group in the West and, in Alston, has led the most famous community broadband project in the country. This is the same culture that I was lucky enough to participate in at the Skelton Show, the Wigton Carnival and the Brampton fete in aid of the cottage hospital. And curiously, it is nowhere more evident than in the power of our campaigns: on wind-farms, which seem at first to be against something rather than for it, but which in fact reflect a deeper wisdom, a capacity for detailed work, co-operation, patience and determination. And common-sense. Again and again our communities show they know more, care more and can do more than distant officials. But how do we make more of this strength? What new obstacles would we have to remove? What support and links could we provide? How can we set our communities free?