newton rigg, walking and penrith new squares

Today, Tuesday January 17th, I went with the Conservative Party group of Penrith and the Border to announce our support for the Newton Rigg campus and to oppose plans to close the site. Newton Rigg is vital to Cumbria both in terms of the training it provides and because of its broader contribution to the economy and development of the area. The staff of Newton Rigg have a wonderfully flexible and practical approach to training. They provide advice and support to local business (which has saved some businesses). And their staff, students and visitors to Newton Rigg have contributed greatly to the local economy through using local shops and services. Their most unique asset is their upland farm – there is no other in the country.

What makes me particularly angry is that this is just another example of the consistent neglect of rural Penrith and the Border. It is part of a pattern with the continual threats against rural schools and services and against Penrith and Alston hospitals. We must lay down a marker that our unique county – which is loved all over Britain – can only flourish if we continue to nurture and protect wonderful local institutions such as Newton Rigg.  I am determined to press all levels of government to ensure that the campus survives and flourishes on its current site.


Monday January 16th. A walk from Gilsland to Walton. A varied group joined me for this walk: they included a Legal officer, a housewife, two journalists, a grants officer from a large charitable foundation, a windfarm campaigner, a dairy farmer, and a trainee Buddhist nun. We were walking along the Roman Wall – Birdoswald was shrouded in fog but at Banks, the sun came out, revealing a thawing winter landscape – stretching to the still snow-covered Pennines. It was, as always, wonderful to learn from people while walking. People seemed very relaxed and open in talking about their work, their frustrations and their detachment from politics. I had a chance to chat to some farmers and residents at Lanercost but most of my time was spent talking to the walking group.

Those working for or giving grants to charities described the commitment and sacrifice of so many charity employees (working long hours for much less than they could earn in government). They also described – often through very funny anecdotes – the tolerance and wisdom that charity workers can develop over a decade working on a very tricky area.  More troublingly, they described the curious hybrid funding structures, whereby many charities are surviving less on private philanthropy and more on a combination of government, lottery and foundation grants, which draw them into an entire universe of fashionable theories on ‘best practice in the voluntary sector’. There is waste involved in much of this: unnecessary forms, esoteric jargon, excessive feasibility studies and strategic plans. Worse it breeds dishonesty – or as the grants officer politely put it ‘mutual deception – as when I say  ‘you can’t have money for a secretary but you can have money for a support officer who does secretarial work’.

We need to ensure that the remarkable people who are giving their lives to charitable work feel empowered and trusted: able to follow their own best judgement. This excessive paper-work and its associated bad faith, makes initially idealistic and committed charity workers feel increasingly cynical about and distanced from their work. Clearly – and this is much easier said than done – we need to not only remove many of these unnecessary layers (every politicians seems to say that) but also begin to change a whole culture our society, which tries to eliminate all risk, emphasizes process over action and in the process undermines individual responsibility, fulfillment (and even sometimes joy) in work.

Saturday January 15th

Walking all day – but barely covered three miles: I was visiting shops in Penrith. There is unanimity among shop-owners that the prime obstacle for customers is lack of parking. Suppliers refuse to come because they can’t park and customers are not able to wait for a product because they are worried about traffic wardens. It is amazing that so much of Penrith is still intact – some of the shops over a period of two hundred years. It has not yet succumbed like some market towns, to an endless row of charity shops, high street chains and abandoned shop-fronts. And the longer Penrith manages to survive the more people will come to appreciate what it offers. But it needs immediate support: some businesses are down 30 per cent this year, a long-standing shop has just closed.

Council officers should prepare an immediate contingency plan so that when (as seems very likely), Bank of Australia and its partners pull out of New Squares, temporary parking can be installed immediately. We should not be waiting for the announcement and then slowly beginning a process of feasibility studies and tendering. Instead we should have a plan ready to roll out at once.

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