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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Cumbria's pride takes battering in 'great places to live' survey

Cumbria is a great place to live. Isn’t it? Perhaps the conventional view should be re-examined. Because the county’s pride has just been battered by research which suggests exactly the opposite.

The Halifax Rural Quality of Life Survey compares the 119 district council areas in rural England, Scotland and Wales.

Each is assessed against 17 criteria. These range from earnings to rainfall; class sizes to crime rates; life expectancy to broadband speed.

Scenery was not on the list, which helps to explain why the league table makes unhappy reading for Cumbria: Allerdale 96th; Eden 98th; South Lakeland 106th; Copeland 113th.

No surprise that the county’s weather scored poorly. But this is not the only cloud in the sky.

While rain is high, wages are low. The average weekly wage in rural Britain is £594. In Eden it’s £491.

Eden’s combination of low wages and high house prices makes it one of the most difficult places in the UK to buy property.

The survey suggests a north-south divide in quality of rural life.

Fifteen of the top 50 districts are in south east England. None is in the north west. The highest-ranked northern district is Selby in Yorkshire at 27.

East Cambridgeshire tops the table. Weekly earnings there average £707.

Suzanne Caldwell of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce thinks Cumbria fares badly because it is “properly rural”.

“The survey probably favours less properly rural places in the south,” she says. “A lot of areas which are classed as rural will be very closely linked to major conurbations. Being rural in these places is very different to being rural in Cumbria.

“They are linked to urban facilities and urban jobs. Many of them are really commuter villages. Rural Cumbria depends on itself.”

East Cambridgeshire’s wages make more sense if many of its residents spend their working lives in London.

Cumbria, meanwhile, has the high property prices of a rural idyll but not the wages to afford them.

The sparse population which makes Cumbria peaceful also makes it difficult to argue for services. The current battleground is high-speed broadband.

“In a rural area it’s more important to have good broadband because you don’t have good access to other services,” says Suzanne.

But on the other hand...

“I know we’ve got problems with broadband and things. But it’s a really good place to live. You couldn’t possibly look at large parts of Cumbria and say it’s a bad place to live.”

Andrew Humphries is a governor at Newton Rigg college near Penrith. Cumbria’s lowly position in the survey did not surprise him, mainly because of its low wages.

“We have a lot of people in the service industries. I once read that the lowest-waged wards in the county were Grasmere and Patterdale, where house prices are certainly not low.

“Low wages are a constraint to developing a more skilled community. People on low earnings find it more difficult to take breaks for education, which limits their ability to improve their prospects.”

While politicians have placed great emphasis on higher education, Andrew feels further education is vital for Cumbria: as a gateway to higher education and as an end in itself.

“I think there’s a real issue about the funding of further education. So many people would benefit from good quality further education which would allow them to become skilled tradespeople. But the education isn’t there.

“Further education is often a stepping stone to higher education. I don’t think the participation rates are being optimised for either.”

Andrew believes rural Cumbria could also make more of its farming, rather than allowing other parts of the country to reap what we sow.

“In this county we produce a lot of livestock and livestock products. These head off down the M6 to be processed into other products. We are not sufficiently equipped to get into the added value. There are examples of niche products made here but not enough in the mass market.”

Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart agrees that Cumbria should do more to exploit its assets. “In Eden the main economic drivers are tourism and farming. We need to be clear-sighted about how we support them.

“There is huge potential in the Middle East for selling sheep. In Saudi Arabia they will eat more sheep than you would believe.

“For tourism we need to protect and defend our landscape. We need to be much more disciplined about bad development and planning and much more cautious about allowing wind turbines.

“And we need to stop the kind of bad development we’ve seen a lot of around Penrith: the construction of ugly buildings like a KFC on the edge of town, a McDonald’s that tourists see when they get off the train.”

The MP feels that Cumbria’s beauty can blind outsiders to the reality of rural life.

“Often people in London have an idea of Cumbria based on going on holiday in the Lake District. I think the survey is an important reminder, should anyone in London ever get the idea that Cumbria is a place without any problems.

“There are a lot of initiatives we’re doing such as investing heavily in broadband so people can run small businesses. We need affordable housing. And we need focus on the two leading industries. There’s no silver bullet, no one thing you can do to solve everything.”

Richard Pearsy, planning officer with Friends of the Lake District, agrees that affordable housing is essential. “A lot of authorities recognise that’s something they have to address. We work with authorities to encourage sustainable development and affordable housing.”

But like most people who will agree that Cumbria has problems, he also points to the things which were not measured on the rural life survey.

“It’s important that people recognise you can’t always put a monetary value on everything. Some important things have not been included. Quality of life depends on quality of environment.”

Brian Reay knows this well. He is a tour guide who shows off Cumbria’s delights to people from around the world.

“I’m just heading down to Grasmere,” he tells The Cumberland News. “Anybody that could see this view would say it’s got to be the best place in the world to live from an aesthetic point of view.

“We do have problems with housing. I’m going to Hawkshead later. There are a lot of holiday homes there and that’s obviously a problem. Having said that, where I live, in Bassenthwaite village, there’s a lot more affordable accommodation. There are pockets like that even in the Lake District.”

Rural Cumbria is not just the Lake District, and Brian has great affection for the county’s less celebrated areas.

“My wife and myself have spent a lot of time in Silloth and Allonby and the quality of life when we lived there was brilliant.

“There’s cheaper housing there. And on the whole Cumbrian people are brilliant. I’ve been driving a Japanese film crew around the Lakes this week. They can’t believe the friendliness of the people of Cumbria.”

That’s something else which is difficult to rank in a league table. So perhaps we should put the surveys aside and admire the view.

“We don’t want to spend our lives staring at statistics because they can be very, very misleading,” says Rory Stewart.

“It’s very important that we have a vibrant economy. But there are things you can’t measure. Those are the things that make us live in Cumbria.

“I would much rather live in Cumbria than live in the south east. I feel good as soon as I get off the train at Penrith. I feel happier.”

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