Farming in the Uplands - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Barnard Castle Vision


  Barnard Castle Vision is a twenty year rural regeneration project aiming to transform the future prospects of a small market town in Teesdale, a traditional upland farming community. Supported by statutory agencies and a variety of private and public stakeholders, a small part-time team has succeeded in securing substantial resources for a wide-ranging and ambitious programme of projects attracting private and public sector investment, building community and intellectual capacity, growing opportunities for local residents, new businesses, and visitors, and raising the profile of the town both nationally and internationally. Although there is a long way to go, the model appears sustainable despite the changes in the context of economic development. The case is put for encouraging flexibility and eccentricity in the development of regeneration models for the future.


  The Barnard Castle Vision is a twenty year project to sustain and transform the future of a small market town at the heart of a rural uplands community of 25,000 people. The aspiration is to make Barnard Castle a Market Town for Ideas—a rural laboratory to develop and try out interesting ideas and projects from wherever they may be found—local, regional, or international. We have the following aspirations:

    — Preserve and enhance the existing spirit of place—physical, historical, and emotional;

    — Give all the people of Barnard Castle increased opportunity to achieve their full potential and contribute to the life of the town;

    — Bring the best possible resources of imagination, intelligence, wisdom, experience and wealth into the town from wherever they can be found;

    — Make the town the place to come to try out new ideas; and

    — Show the world a place of heart, head and hand—open to change, eager to experiment, respectful of its past, and ambitious for its future


  Started as part of the RDA's Market Towns Initiative, the founding partners for Barnard Castle Vision were the RDA (One North East), Durham County Council, and Teesdale District Council (now abolished). The board has substantial private sector involvement and includes representatives from the enterprise agency, the farming community, business, education, and health. It is led by an unpaid independent Executive Chair who was openly recruited in accordance with Nolan principles. A key element of the Vision's success has been the consistent support and engagement of senior officers from the RDA and the County Council who have been prepared to champion the relatively unconventional model of the Vision from within traditionally more bureaucratic organizations.


  It has been vital to retain a degree of independence to avoid getting sucked into any particular body's agenda or culture and to be able to be opportunistic and sometimes fast moving. At times this has been challenging, particularly as the rules and regulations governing public funding and public life are frequently crushingly obstructive to achieving fast, value for money, and effective progress. A Community Interest Company provides another vehicle for getting things done when normal channels are just too convoluted. Our key partners recognize the advantages of combining the weight and power of large public bodies with the independence of a partnership model.


  Central to our success has been our exceptional small team of part-time people including a highly experienced regeneration officer seconded from the county council, self employed private sector consultants with a wide range of senior regional and national expertise, and experts recruited for specific projects or tasks. It was decided early on that the diversity and scale of our aspirations meant that we would not be able to attract or afford people of the right expertise and seniority to full time positions. Instead, we have employed a number of people for one or two days a week, or for specific tasks. As a result, our team includes amongst others a nationally known landscape architect, a former CEO of the Royal Parks, a prize-winning architect, the director of an international festival, and two exceptionally effective project creators and managers, none of whom would work full time on a project based in a small market town.


  The themes of our programme are built around the existing strengths and needs of our community—agriculture, independent retail, artisan and applied arts skills, science and innovation, sustainability, tourism, local food, community and health. Each theme is linked with a physical development site in and around the town. We want every project we do to create wealth, increase opportunities for local people, attract new people to move here, offer something to young people, have an element to attract visitors, and show evidence of drawing on good ideas and experience from elsewhere as well as building on local ideas and aspiration.


  We have raised £1.8 million for Digital Dale, a project to bring fast broadband to 99% of all the households in Teesdale and Upper Weardale. We have been successful in gaining HLF funding to carry out a £3.4 million landscape project in the Tees Valley to recreate and restore historical views, engaging partners from across the community. We have strengthened the independent retail sector by attracting new businesses to the town with flexible grants and support. We have converted a derelict car showroom into an art gallery, caf

, and digital workspace linked to regional "Innovator Connector" sites supporting small creative and digital businesses. We have lit the castle, and we have secured the Sterling Prize winning architects Feilden Clegg to work with us on a stunning renovation and expansion of a run-down community hall in the centre of town to provide a local food hall, conference, arts and community facilities. We had found £4.5 million of the £5 million needed for this project, but are back to £2.5 million following the cutting of the RDAs and are currently looking elsewhere.


  Technical assessment and research has been carried out on each of the potential development sites in the town, and we are working with developers for several of them, including the relocation of the Auction Mart to sustain the farming community at the same time as protecting the retail sector from the possible adverse consequences of a supermarket development. The Invisible University, Health Campus, College of Restoration, and New Directions projects are about coalescing interest in different strands of rural life and encouraging institutions from everywhere to try out new ideas and practices, respectively in rural issues, health in rural areas, applied arts and apprenticeships, and the future of agriculture. All of these may have physical elements in the future but are starting with meeting of minds. We have also developed international links, with Montfoort and Harfleur for potential EU funded projects, with the Compagnons du Devoir, a French craft guild with which we have a number of plans, including bringing their UK HQ to Barnard Castle (we already have three of their journeymen placed in the town), and the French equivalent to the OU, through the French Consul.


  The skills of our team mean that we are good at mixing and matching funding to get things done. We obtained £1.8 million core funding for three years through Single Programme which is coming to an end in March 2011, but have also been funded by Durham County Council, HLF, RDPE, ERDF, LEADER, and work with charitable and private sector investors and volunteers. Many of our projects are not particularly expensive, relying on weaving agendas and gaining interest from different partners. Our basic team costs around £120k a year and we reckon that if we can keep that going we will continue to make projects happen whatever the funding context.


  A small rural community finds any kind of change difficult, and although nothing we have done (except a small modern temporary information point) has been visually intrusive to the town, the Vision has attracted considerable animosity, often through misunderstanding and rumour. Thus although it has brought in new retailers to the town with the result that the vacancy rate of the shops in town is 6% against the current regional average of 13%, local people write to the paper most weeks to bemoan the "dying high street" against all the evidence. Although local councillors are involved in many of the projects and are briefed regularly on progress, because the Vision board is a "doing" rather than a "talking" board and does not include politicians, there is entrenched suspicion even where the Vision has worked closely with the town council or local community groups to deliver projects of mutual interest. We have a "1,000 Voices" community engagement panel which is starting to gather momentum, and gradually public opinion is beginning to be more positive as people see projects coming to fruition as opposed to hearing about all the research and development that had to take place in the first two years. The scope of the work is impossible to encapsulate in easy public communication, and we will continue to have difficulty in engaging everybody in everything. Regeneration in a rural community can never be wholly dependent on the existing resources, culture, and people of a place. There is always a need for outside skills, experience, and ideas to catalyse the status quo and raise aspirations.


  My final point is a plea for allowing and encouraging regeneration vehicles a certain messiness of approach. In as far as we have been successful, it is because we have partners who are prepared to take part in a sharp and imaginative approach and bring their own resources to back an ambitious vision. If we had stuck with lower ambitions, it would have been much more difficult to fund them, and much more likely that projects would have been drawn into existing bureaucratic structures. In my view, the values of the Vision chime well with some of the themes that are emerging in the new political world—entrepreneurialism, big society, expedience, smart working, and red tape cutting. Let's hope that rural communities everywhere will be able to meet the challenges of the next twenty years.

October 2010

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