Community In Action

Allendale was the destination for one of the new North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll’s visits around his new domain. In taking over the role at the beginning of May, Jamie became the first directly elected mayor of the new North of Tyne Combined Authority which has ambitious plans to create 10,000 jobs, add over £1bn in goods and services and lever over £2bn of private sector investment for the region.

It’s a huge area covering town, city and some of the least densely populated rural areas in the country. Places like the Allen Valleys.

Part of Jamie’s vision is of a dynamic and more inclusive economy, bringing together people and opportunities to create vibrant communities and a high quality of life. So the two projects he visited in Allendale could not have been more appropriate.

First he joined a team of volunteers on a community project to install high speed broadband in the Allen Valleys. B4RN is a professionally designed fibre optic broadband network, registered as a non-profit community benefit society, and run by a dedicated local team with the support of landowners and volunteers.

Access to broadband is close to Jamie’s heart and he was clearly impressed to see the community-owned and delivered scheme in action. “It’s great to see. It’s good for business, and it means people have the realistic option of working from home in the beautiful heart of rural Northumberland.”

The Broadband 4 Allen Valleys project began with a group of four local residents bemoaning their ‘terrible’ broadband. They came up with the idea of a community owned and run project but decided first to run it past local people. “It was an astonishing thing”, they said, “We arranged a meeting and filled the hall!”. They negotiated with local landowners for access and are now installing around a kilometre of cable a day with groups of volunteers who meet regularly and will ultimately connect up the service to people’s homes and help to maintain it.

Next up was a very different project. Higher Ground in Allendale aims to support people with mental health problems using gardening as therapy. The brainchild of Sam Coulson and Jane Pryde, with support from the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Landscape Partnership Scheme and AVEL, a community benefit organisation also set up under the umbrella of the Landscape Partnership, they negotiated with Northumberland County Council to takeover a piece of derelict land alongside the school in Allendale, and bring it back into public use as a space for both relaxation and growing food.

In the past year, with the help of volunteers, Jane and Sam have created growing beds, erected poly tunnels, built a pond and picnic area and a quiet space for relaxation. They have also rescued a rundown, disused school building, creating a comfortable meeting room and classroom where they have drop in mornings and craft workshops.

Sam, a gardener who has himself suffered mental health problems, is well aware of the therapeutic effects of working outdoors. Jane had worked with male offenders in Edinburgh and also knew the importance of connecting with nature.

They came up with a plan for Higher Ground three years ago. “It’s been a real collaborative effort,” says Jane. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of the North Pennines AONB and AVEL. Funding came from the Heritage Lottery Fund through the North Pennines AONB Landscape Partnership Scheme, Tesco and Greggs but they need to generate income to secure the future.”

Jane says of the visit, “We were delighted to see the North of Tyne Mayor. He met some of our regular volunteers and had a tour of the garden and building to find out all about the roots and aims of the project. He is interested in social enterprises that provide community support as well as local sustainability which are some of our core values.”

“It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon so we were able to sit outside and have a good chat. He was very supportive and keen to hear about its transformation and our plans for the future. It’s great that he is taking an interest in our area and the initiatives that we have here, hopefully some links with other organisations and funding streams may come from his connections.”

Jamie agreed, “This is about sustainability, working together to support people in the community with mental health problems and helping them to recover in a therapeutic space”

He also had a message for people outside the region. “For those of you who don’t know it, this is what the North Pennines look like. It’s brilliant – one of the best places in the world!”