On Scale and Economic Growth

Penrith and the Border has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Britain – at last count 572 people were receiving job seekers’ allowance, out of about 65,000 adults in the constituency. We have one of the very highest rates of self-employment, and of people working from home (more than a quarter of our population). 92 per cent of people in Penrith and the Border work for businesses employing less than ten. And we have inherited a unique environment: a legacy of small villages and market towns, sheep, small family farms, and a landscape that combines the best of the wild and the farmed. We have a patchwork of energetic, resilient people, working in small groups, investing in their community life. But for decades policy makers have pursued economic strategies that seem to undermine our strengths.

In all our market towns, councils have tried to create more growth – and more revenue for the council – by increasing the population. They have built more industrial parks; and then, claiming a labour shortage, more homes; then more businesses to employ the people in the new homes; then more homes, and so on and so forth. Historic town centre have become encircled by new housing, and industrial estates. The new super-stores on the edge of towns have drawn people away from the increasingly isolated town centre shops. There are more traffic jams and more pressure on services. The economy grows, but only because the population grows. The ‘per capita’ wealth does not increase: the original people do not become any better off.

Only three years ago, a very senior county councillor told me that he dreamt of creating a car factory in the Eden Valley. The car factory was fortunately a fantasy. But his attitude was typical of nearly sixty years of industrial policy in Cumbria. In the nineteen forties and fifties, large government subsidies were used to bribe businesses to establish inappropriate industries, particularly in West Cumbria. When the subsidies ceased, the businesses closed their plants and sold their equipment to the developing world. We repeated the same mistakes in the 2000s. Almost 300 million pounds was spent by the North West Development Agency. Much was spent on grandiose multi-million pound projects, many of which have left little trace behind. Most of the policies have favoured larger shops, larger businesses, and even larger farms, in an area which in reality thrives on small shops, small businesses and small farms.

And a whole series of confident arguments and theories have been recited to justify such strategies. “We need to create affordable housing.” “We need to create employment.” Surely you’re not against growth?” (These arguments are used even when the development hardly includes any affordable housing; even when there is very little unemployment in the area; even when communities are willing to build their own affordable housing, and even when the ‘growth’ does not increase individual incomes).

Cumbrian communities have often fought back. Alston has again taken the lead in preserving its historic townscape; Appleby has so far resisted an out of town supermarket; Brampton has not stripped the GP surgery and care homes from the centre of town. The friends of the Carlisle-Settle railway saved the line from ‘government efficiency cuts’. Upper Eden has taken control of its own planning policy through a public referendum. Crosby Ravensworth has proved that a community can deliver high quality, attractive, affordable housing with good heating systems, and elegant design, without having to employ a big housing developer. Many other communities have fought to protect their landscape from inappropriate wind turbines or mass housing development. The fact that our area still remains so beautiful, prosperous, and distinctive, is in large part because of community action.

But we could do much better at the policy level. France has been much better at protecting a network of small family farms, local produce and local markets. Italy and Spain demonstrate how historic market towns can be protected and sensitively developed; how out of town supermarkets can be banned; and how even McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken can be forced to use discreet signs, and traditional buildings. Austria has been much better at bringing prosperity to small farms, preserving traditional architectural styles in the Alps, and encouraging young farmers to branch out into becoming guides for outdoor activities. In the Lake District, farming and our 100 million pound outdoor industry are kept very separate; in Austria such industries benefit from each other.

We must not be bullied into believing that there is no alternative to ‘scale’ and ‘growth’.  Instead, we should patiently explore and explain what we value about our area today, what we want to preserve, and what we would like it to look like in twenty years’ time. We should not be afraid to say that some things are better left alone. Penrith and the Border is a place that thrives on beauty, community, small farms, and small businesses. We need policies designed for who we are, not for what other people would like us to be.

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