“This Land Is Your Land – Facing Change in a Rural County” Discuss!
Thank you very much for inviting me to think aloud with you today. I am delighted to be here as part of the ‘Moving Mountains’ Mission across Cumbria. I have been here many times as the Archbishop for the Northern Province and also in my capacity as Chancellor of the University of Cumbria – a post I have held since 2007. This has given me a great opportunity to see at first hand, the amazing potential of this county and the multi-faceted grounds for hope.
Now hope may not feel very high on your agenda at present particularly during this time of negotiation to exit from the European Union. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of so many changes sweeping over our country and indeed, throughout our Global Village – Planet Earth. To feel we are a people to whom things are done to rather than doers of the seismic changes. To feel that the voices of those making decisions are far away from us may make us feel that our views don’t matter and, therefore, we cannot influence the outcomes for a better Britain.
But however tempting it may be to feel this, my message for you today is that this is not the case. We are all, you are well–equipped to provide a model to those in other parts of the country, how to be the midwife of good and lasting change, built on your commitment to the land, the strength of your communities and the relations which exist between you. We must all, you must all, “Be the change we/you want to see”.
Now I am aware there are a number of challenges and changes which you are facing at present, many of which Caz Graham has highlighted in her excellent talk. There are widely differing demands on the land from farmers, residents, businesses, schools and those providing services and facilities. This can cause conflict, for example over planning and land use, expansion of business, creation of farm enterprises, provision of public services and the place of people on the landscape.
There is also the issue of the very high number of second homes in Cumbria which is driving up house prices. As a result, many households, not just those of young people are priced out of the housing market. Their chances of ever getting on the housing ladder is zero 100%.
Then there are demographic issues. The proportion of older people is increasing at a faster rate in Cumbria and by 2020, one in four people in the county will be aged over 65. Half those currently over the age of 65 in this county have a long-term health problem or disability and many live in isolated rural areas.
Although parts of Cumbria are seeing population decline, the overall flow of people exceeds those leaving. However, the loss of young people is particularly acute across Cumbria as those in their late teens leave for education, employment and housing. Now young people are the life-blood of our communities and it is urgent that we tackle this head on! It will also be important to encourage young farmers and new entrants in order to ensure the future sustainability of communities and landscape.
It is a tough time too for those in farming. As you know, income from agriculture is variable and often below the income from minimum wage occupations, especially for hill farmers. Farms have had to increase in size in recent years in order to remain viable. This has had all sorts of unintended consequences - fewer people involved with agriculture, increasing loneliness as fewer people look after larger areas of land, and rising debts to buy the additional land which can be crippling.
I am also aware that many people are also struggling with significant poverty both in the countryside as well as around the ex-industrial coastal areas including Workington and Whitehaven. I note that the Cumbria Community Foundation’s Report, ‘Cumbria Revealed’, for May 2017 records that one in ten households are living in poverty and this includes nearly 12,000 children. One in eight households have an income of less than £10,000 a year and one in five people have a long-term health problem or disability.
So there are plenty of challenges! Though the Lion and the Lamb (or Helm Crag as it is officially named) may lie down together near Grasmere (the name of Helm Crag), Cumbria is not ‘God’s own county’ - that accolade rightly belongs to Yorkshire alone. But you have fantastic resources and skills here – not least the five highest peaks in the UK and the world’s largest colouring pencil – all eight metres of it at the Keswick Pencil Museum. I’m also impressed by the fact that you successfully saw off a potential American invasion at Whitehaven during the American War of Independence! Cumbria has also produced a disproportionate number of Archbishops of York.
Remember that is it your land and your inheritance – and that you have more influence and potential to bring about change than you think. What always strikes me when I visit Cumbria is your immense sense of commitment, reverence and responsibility to this land. It reminds me of the understanding of “Covenant” in the Bible. Let me explain what I mean.
When God brought the Israelites out from slavery in Egypt, he promised their leader Moses that he would bring them to a land of their own – the Promised Land. And he made a Covenant with his people – an agreement which reflected the mutual responsibility of God and humanity to care for the land, to honour God knowing that the land was a gift, not something just to be exploited and taken for granted. It was a gift which also brought with it responsibilities to ensure they used it not just to support themselves but also the poor, the vulnerable in their communities and also for those from other countries who were living as “strangers/aliens in their land”.
This is what you are doing and which gives such strong grounds of hope for the future. Some of you here today will have inherited farms owned by your parents and grandparents and others will have taken on farms or be employed on them and in related areas. You are fulfilling that covenant relationship of trust by faithfully looking after the land and developing it so that the land is fruitful and is enabling the county to prosper and support those who live here. Others are fulfilling this role through their work in business, education and a whole range of other sectors which affect on the lives of those living in Cumbria.
Cumbria’s economy is thriving in many ways. It has been worth over £11bn in Gross Value Added (GVA), over the past ten years and, Cumbria has been among the top five counties for GVAs and productivity growth. Visitors to this amazing country are generating £2.4bn for this economy. Through my visits here over the years, I know that as well as your very important and diverse agricultural sector, you also have significant nuclear, pharmaceutical, engineering and other businesses – some of which I’ve been fortunate to visit including a memorable trip to see the submarines at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering in Barrow-in-Furness.
For those of you who are involved in farming and associated businesses here, I am sure that Brexit can bring some really significant opportunities. It’s not often that I agree with Michael Gove but his policy of sustainable food production in relation to Brexit, does sound as if it will help our food producers. As he said on 20 February announcing that food was now at the heart of Government policy:
‘If we get policy right for those who produce our food, we can ensure sustained and balanced growth across the United Kingdom’.
I have been a keen and loud campaigner for buying British farm produce. They are the best. And as the Farmers Union strapline above Thirsk Farmers Auction Market says, “We give sound advice and no BULL”. That is why in the House of Lords’ Debate on the EU Directive on electronic tagging of sheep, I strongly and successfully spoke against such a daft idea for hill farming. Gordon Brown intervened. Yippee!
Incidentally, I can’t resist the opportunity to share my Michael Gove joke. What’s Boris Johnson’s least favourite Christmas film? Answer – Not ‘Love Actually’ but ‘Gove actually!
But seriously, Brexit offers us both challenges but also real opportunities to make a difference for the ways in which we care for the land, produce our food and create a sustainable basis for the future. For as a country, we face some major challenges regarding the environmental sustainability of the way we produce our food as well how we distribute it.
In November 2017, the Royal Society of Arts launched a ‘Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’ looking at what and how we eat, how we produce our food and the health of the landscapes that sustain us in many ways. It identified real problems due to our pressures on the soil especially through our increasingly industrialised farming and the development of monoculture crops.
The Commission also identified worrying issues about our food. Despite the fact that we now have a wider range of produce than ever before, we are facing a rapid growth of diet–related illnesses and food poverty is increasing. Food producers are earning less for growing what we eat, the concentration of supply means we can now only buy food now in a small number of larger supermarkets. What is more, there is little margin on simple, high quality food and instead, margins are built into the production of elaborately manufactured products which are more expensive and less healthy. The report concluded that the centralising and consolidating pressures on food producers are creating ‘a perfect storm of fragile, insecure, unsubstantial social, economic and environmental ecosystems’. We are growing a narrower range of food and importing more of what we used to grow here. We import over 80% of the fruit and 45% of the vegetables we consume. The report concluded that we need to challenge the claim that centralised, industrialised agriculture in the only way of feeding a large population.
So we need to raise more questions about how our food is grown and supplied and you in Cumbria with your great experience in this area are well- equipped to do this. The new environmental land management system of Brexit which will aim to ‘pay farmers public money for public goods’, with the principal ‘good’ being improving the environment could help to bring some of these necessary changes. In all this, it will be really important to ensure that those most likely to be affected in an adverse way, receive the support they need. This will include uplands farmers, who may need special non-area based payments.
But some of the key strengths of Cumbria are not those which can be measured in strict economic terms but are nevertheless, facts which create solid grounds for hope. These include your sense of community responsibility and the great network of relationships which exist to sustain this. One of the enormous strengths of the county is the deep engagement between Church congregations and their communities. The formal and informal roles that congregation members and other have enhance rural community life, address isolation and provide much-needed services and support.
One of the most incredible features of Cumbria is the number of community and voluntary organisations. I have discovered that there are nearly 3,000 registered community and voluntary organisations. There are also a further 3,000 active groups that employ over 9,000 full-time equivalent staff and involve over 53,000 volunteers. Not only does this sector bring in an income of over £400million to the Cumbrian economy each year, it also provides live-giving support and help to all sorts of individuals and groups, many of whom are vulnerable, enabling them not only survive but also to flourish.
Another core strength in the country is the deep engagement between churches and their communities. These enhance rural community life, address isolation and provide much-needed services and support. We see this, for example, in the ways our churches are using their buildings and other resources to sustain and develop community life. By doing this they provide places of friendship and practical support to many who are isolated or in need.
I’m also particularly encouraged that churches of many different denominations are working together here to help and support their local communities. Cumbria is an ecumenical county and this is its core strength – the future for the rural church, for mission and for growth will be ecumenical in nature.
As I mentioned earlier, you have a covenant relationship with the land. You are its stewards and so much rests on your shoulders for its future flourishing.
Jesus spoke many times to his disciples and followers about the importance of us using the gifts and talents which God has given to each one of us and to illustrate this, told the parable of the talents. In it, a master gives his three servants, ten, five and one talent respectively for them to use and generate profit for him. The servants who were given the ten and five talents do just this, invest it wisely to produce a profit and are rewarded by their master by being entrusted with further talents. But the master condemns the servant who whom he gave one talent who responded by burying it in the ground on the basis that he was afraid of his master and it therefore produced nothing.
So the lesson for us today is to use the talents we’ve been given and to be prepared to take risks – not to bury our heads in the sand. And this applies to all of you today - stewards of this amazing land and county. It is a question of how, as good stewards, we can all use the gifts given to us to bring about the well-being and flourishing of all.
This will, in part, be by making best use of the land, building on the rich agricultural base that you have so that you continue to provide food and related resources to feed so many and not just in Cumbria but in the UK and other parts of the world.
But part of this will also be to think constantly of the steps we can take to ensure environmental sustainability so that this country will continue to flourish and support well the generations who will follow after us.
But it is also important to think what steps we need to make to ensure our young people have the opportunity to study and work here, to find affordable housing so that they can play their full part in building up this great county of Cumbria in the future.
As good stewards of this land and county, we need to ensure our voices are heard on two fronts:
First to witness to all that is happening here already which is a model for good practice elsewhere. This will mean sharing our vision of changes we believe should be made, for example to create an environmentally sustainable basis for farming in the future, based on the clear principles of covenant and good stewardship.
The second is to make sure that we are a voice for the powerless and those without a voice, particularly that our young people are guaranteed the help and resources they will need to flourish here in the future.
As some of you may be aware, I set up my Archbishop’s Youth Trust some years ago. This works in both primary and secondary schools across the north of England helping young people to realise and use their gifts for the wellbeing of all. The strapline of the Youth Trust is “Be the change that you want to see”. In other words, if you want it, go for it and make it happen! So far it has worked with 21 schools in Cumbria.
So my challenge for you today, based on all we have heard about the challenges facing Cumbria today, and the incredible strengths and opportunities open to you is “Be the change you want to see”. As God said to Moses, “Do not be afraid, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”.