On Thursday I spent the day cris-crossing the Upper North Tyne, in one of the most fascinating and rewarding days I have spent for a while. I visited businesses like the Northumberland Shepherd Hut and Falconry Days, spent time with Parish Councillors, knocked on doors in West Woodburn and Bellingham, delivered Energy Booklets, enjoyed Evensong in Bellingham, and attended Bellingham Middle School for a 30 minute Q&A with the senior children, and had a good, albeit quick, chat with the Headteacher. I loved being back, as I used to live just outside Wark for many years, and was a resident there at the 2010 election. I know the Upper North Tyne well.
It culminated with the Bellingham Deanery Synod inviting me to a Question and Asnwer session in Otterburn Village Hall. I was there to address 3 key themes - youth employment, housing and connectivity in all its forms - from broadband to rural transport. However, over 1 and a half hours we discussed everything from Schools to business rates, our collective dislike of Ofsted's high handed approach, the rise in apprenticeships, the demographic problem, the movement of people around Tynedale, the way in which local communities can, sometimes, be judged by their youth football teams, the usage of local tradesmen, for big local projects, and pretty much all of the issues that affect a rural area like the Bellingham Deanery. I was struck driving home after a long day by how similar the roles of the Vicar and the MP are:
- Both are there to provide assistance.
- Both would prefer if we were "supporters", even in the broadest term- but both the Church and MPs are rightly obliged to provide assistance to one and all, without fear or favour. I confess to enjoying the look of surprise when I help someone who I know detests the political views I am purported to hold [even though I am a very different politician to what many people imagine I am]. I often tell the tale of the BNP supporter who was exceptionally nasty to me during the 2010 campaign, but who we helped 9 months later with a particularly difficult local problem.
- Both struggle to provide local solutions to local problems, and both can make a huge difference.
The starkest difference is that I can be dismissed by the voters from this job. But for my part I like that - if I am doing a really bad job I should be dismissed. There is no such thing as a right to a job for life in my profession certainly.
I was, however, really encouraged by the effort being made by the Church in the Bellingham Deanery to address the issues we all face. Mike Slade is, I know, doing wonderful work in Chollerton, and his ideas for Youth Advocacy and outreach were fascinating. However, possibly the highlight of the day was the realisation that Susan, the Bellingham Vicar, was going to try and get an apprentice.
I tried to convey my optimism for the years ahead for rural Tynedale:
- broadband is the key to so much: as we already live in the best place how good it would be if we were able to work from home or in a barn or local business unit in exactly the same way that we can in Newcastle or any other town?
In short, as the broadband extends I believe we shall see local communities reborn with entrepreneurs setting up businesses at home. I am already seeing this in Hexham, where businesses like PDL and Red Marine are providing state of the art computer based engineering, from small little offices in Hexham - something which would have been unheard of 5 or 10 years ago.
The broadband point was also echoed by the Bellingham Middle School children.
- housing and jobs: we discussed local plans for housing, but not in the detail I would have liked, but there was a lot to cover. I remain convinced that the Local Plans will address the housing needs. We did not get into the National Park problem of the lack of affordable housing, or ability to convert, but rural housing is a genuine and real problem. We discussed the lack of apprenticeships or opportunities in forestry and agriculture, but I made the point that these were not where the future rural jobs were going to be coming. In all probability, the future jobs would be home based start ups or jobs with the growing businesses of Tynedale - I gave the example of the 40+ new engineers at Egger in their new Academy.
Thursday was a long but fascinating day - I can only thank the Deanery Synod for inviting me and providing a brilliant discussion forum that even featured delicious cake!