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Skerne River: Discover Brightwater Project

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 5 September 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

I want to take this time to talk about a heritage and environmental project in my constituency that will over the next few years restore, reveal and celebrate life along the River Skerne. The river flows through the length of my constituency before reaching the River Tees at Hurworth Place after flowing through Darlington. Unlike the vast majority of rivers, it flows inland instead of running to the sea. The Skerne is not widely known, except perhaps to local people. It is not the Thames, the Wear, the Tees or the Tyne, and it is not the Severn or the Tweed. In parts it resembles a stream and can be seen in geographical terms as a tributary of the Tees, but the Skerne’s significance can be measured in other ways.

The Skerne is the only river to appear on the back of a five-pound note. The note in question was issued in 1993 to celebrate the success of the railway pioneer George Stephenson and includes an image of Locomotion No. 1 travelling across the Skerne bridge over the river. The bridge is almost 200 years old and is the oldest continuously used railway bridge in the world. Historic England called the bridge irreplaceable, along with the Angel of the North and Holy Island off Lindisfarne. The bridge is in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), but the early trains that crossed the Skerne at this point first travelled from Heighington Crossing in my constituency of Sedgefield, of which more later.

That link to the industrial revolution is the reason why the Discover Brightwater project is necessary. The project is a £3.3 million landscape partnership programme supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. To date, about £7.6 billion has been spent on improving landscapes and preserving heritage in programmes like this around the country. The Discover Brightwater project focuses on improving the natural and cultural environment endeavours to work with community groups to discover and reveal the history of the area, improve existing environments and create new nature reserves for the benefit of wildlife and land users. The Brightwater partnership includes Durham Wildlife Trust, Durham County Council, Darlington Borough Council, the Environment Agency, the Tees River Trust, the local access forum, and the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland—known as “Arch & Arch”.

“Skerne” is an ancient word, which is believed to originate from the old Norse word “skir” meaning “bright” and “clean”, hence the name of the Discover Brightwater project. Many years ago, the Skerne was full of fens and wetlands, hence the name of my constituency and the nearest town of Sedgefield. The wetlands still exist in part, but land has been reclaimed for farming since the start of the industrial revolution and water was pumped away due to the growth of the coal industry. Experts believe that the water table fell by as much as 70 metres, so the fens and wetlands are not what they used to be. Names of ancient settlements reveal what the area was like centuries ago. The name Sedgefield is a case in point, as is Bradbury and the Isle, Great Isle farm, and the term “carr” meaning a boggy area or wood in old Norse, which is why we have Preston Carr and Mordon Carr.

The Brightwater Project is important because it wants to manage the local environment and restore the Skerne to some of its past glory. There are plans to create fenland covering 50 acres, which would include the existing Bishop fen near Bishop Middleham and Hardwick Park, and the Woodham fen near Newton Aycliffe. The idea behind creating a managed fen is to spread biodiversity, mitigate climate change and attract tourism. There is also a potential plan to significantly increase the size of the fen to create a Great North fen. Since the end of the industrial revolution and the coal-mining era, the landscape has wanted to return to the way it once was, and that should be allowed to happen, but obviously in a managed way that has the support of landowners, Government agencies and local people. The project is not only about the past. It is about the present and revealing the natural environment and heritage for residents living in this part of south-east Durham, and it is about the future. It is about making south-east Durham a place to visit. There is so much to see and enjoy but, at present, so much remains hidden, with so many stories untold.

Let me take the House on a journey along the 25 miles of the river, which finds its source near Trimdon, the village where I was brought up, and then flows inland to Hurworth Place, which is also in my constituency and is where the Skerne enters the River Tees. The River Skerne starts in the magnesium limestone escarpment between Trimdon and Trimdon Grange in the north of my constituency, just a few hundred metres from the 12th-century St Mary Magdalene church on Trimdon village green, which is the spot where my predecessor, Tony Blair, made his “people’s princess” speech in 1997 following the tragic death of Diana.

During the 19th century, the population of Trimdon expanded rapidly with the opening of the colliery. The importance of the industry to the area helped turn the Skerne from a bright water to the seventh most polluted river in Europe by the 1970s. That is why the Discover Brightwater project is vital to bringing the river back to its former beauty.

The Trimdons grew from the coal industry and supplied the industrial revolution, with collieries at Trimdon Grange, where a pit disaster in 1882 killed 74 men and boys, and at Trimdon and Deaf Hill, as well as a foundry at a place called, strangely enough, Trimdon Foundry.

From there, the River Skerne flows to the east and Hurworth Burn reservoir before meandering south-west, where it enters fertile fields and farmland. The river flows between the village of Fishburn and the market town of Sedgefield. Fishburn is where my mother was born, and my father worked down Fishburn colliery from the ’40s until its closure in 1973. A coke works also operated in the village from 1919 to ’86.

At their peak, the collieries in the Skerne river area —at the Trimdons, Deaf Hill, Fishburn, Dean Bank, Bishop Middleham and Mainsforth—employed almost 10,000 people. Again, the growth of the villages led to pollution of the river, and phosphates used by local farmers washed from the farmland into the river, causing further pollution.

On the opposite bank from the old colliery is the north-east technology park—NETPark—which is one of the country’s premier science, engineering and technology parks for the commercialisation of cutting-edge research and development. It is home to 32 innovative companies, providing over 450 highly skilled jobs. By 2025, NETPark will be not only the destination of choice but the destination of necessity for universities and blue chip companies.

This area on the banks of the Skerne has the remains of a once great industry on one side and flourishing future industries on the other. It is the centre of the constituency.

As part of the Discover Brightwater project, there have been archaeological digs involving 126 dedicated volunteers on the outskirts of Sedgefield, where remains of a Roman village and pottery have been discovered—the first Roman pottery to be discovered in the north-east. The Discover Brightwater team has been working with DigVentures of Barnard Castle at the East Park Roman site in Sedgefield and at the ruins of the Bishop’s castle in Bishop Middleham a couple of miles away. The discovery of further structures at the site of the Bishop’s castle, which was used by the bishops of Durham, has led archaeologists to believe there were once more substantial buildings than previously thought. This is making archaeologists think again about what was originally at the site of the castle.

From Bishop Middleham and Sedgefield, the Skerne flows through Bradbury and the Isle, an area of wetland through which the A1(M) and the east coast main line travel between Durham and Darlington. It is the geographic heart of my constituency. Because of the wetland, the motorway actually floats on the land.

From there, the Skerne travels past Newton Aycliffe and through Ketton, an ancient area of my constituency that is a broad valley created by the small Skerne river. One feature of the Ketton landscape is a 17th-century packhorse bridge, which stands alone because centuries ago farmers straightened the river, moving its flow from under the bridge. It stands alone as a listed structure. There is written evidence of a bridge at the site since 1294.

The area is also famous for the Durham ox, a massive beast that in 1810 sold for £1,000 and weighed 271 stone. It was a bit of a celebrity in its day and travelled 3,000 miles around the country to be exhibited.

The Discover Brightwater project has improved the River Skerne in the Ketton area from Aycliffe to Skerningham, with the help of volunteers and local communities. The project also wants to improve access to Ketton Valley, so that people can enjoy the beauty of the landscape and the heritage of the Skerne and learn of the many local historical stories that go unheard.

From Ketton, we reach Newton Aycliffe, which is the largest conurbation in my constituency. It is a new town with a population of around 28,000 people, and is home to the Discover Brightwater headquarters. Newton Aycliffe business park is the biggest in the north-east of England, with 10,000 to 12,000 employees.

Newton Aycliffe also played a crucial part during the second world war. It was the site of a Royal Ordnance factory known as ROF Aycliffe. Opened in 1941, at a cost of £7 million, the munitions factory was home to the famous Aycliffe Angels, one of whom was my grandmother. The 17,000 strong workforce of almost entirely female employees worked around the clock turning out 700 million bullets, as well as shells and mines for the allied war effort. Their work was dangerous, with numerous accidents and deaths at the factory, including one explosion that killed eight girls. However, those incidents went unrecorded and unacknowledged because of the secrecy of the site. The Aycliffe Angels finally received the recognition they deserved for their commitment and bravery in 2000, with a memorial service and a permanent memorial, which now rests in Newton Aycliffe town centre.

However, the factory’s essential and invaluable work produced pollutants that ended up in the Skerne.

On the very edge of the business park sits Heighington Crossing and beside it a building that was once a pub called the Locomotion, now closed for several years. The pub was called the Locomotion to commemorate the fact that it was at Heighington Crossing in September 1825 that George Stephenson assembled Locomotion No. 1 to enter service on the Stockton and Darlington railway. The route would eventually take the latest invention on the Skerne bridge over the Skerne river, marking the start of the railway age, which would eventually be celebrated on the reverse of the £5 note. The pub the Locomotion is the original ticket office and waiting room. The original very short platform is still there today, and the route of the railway line from Heighington down into Darlington is still used.

On the other side of the railway line, Hitachi has built its new train manufacturing facility. From the original Locomotion No. 1 to the latest high-speed intercity Azuma train, train manufacturing has come full circle, back to the birthplace of the railways.

The length of the River Skerne is steeped in history. Much of it might be unknown, but the Brightwater project provides the opportunity for that history to be known. It also provides the opportunity for the river to return to its original meaning of “bright water”. There are signs of that happening, with sightings of otters and trout in parts of the river where they have not been seen for a long time.

After decades of the industrial revolution, the landscape is starting to return to how it once was. Obviously, that process must be managed. However, the benefits of such a project speak for themselves: biodiversity, the mitigation of climate change, the potential for tourism, the preservation of our heritage, with benefits for the local area and the country and the coming together of our communities as Brightwater engages with them. The Skerne has perhaps been neglected for centuries, but it could now be about to tell its story again. I wish the Discover Brightwater project the best of luck in its endeavour.

It is an honour to respond to an Adjournment debate under your auspices again, Dame Eleanor.

I thank the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) so much for bringing the debate to the Chamber. It struck me how much we learn about our nation and our colleagues through the things that are said in this Chamber. I was fascinated to hear all about the Skerne river. The hon. Gentleman took us on a great journey down a river that I knew little about before he started, but I now know a great deal about it—and about the hon. Gentleman’s life and roots. I am very pleased to be here talking about the subject today.

I have been to Sedgefield because my son is at Durham University and we stayed in Sedgefield only recently. If I had only known about the pub, I would have gone for a beer. I would say that most people know Sedgefield only for the racecourse, but now we will be talking about the river.

As Minister for arts, heritage and tourism, it is of real interest to me to talk about the Discover Brightwater project, which will restore an important area of the north-east and bring wealth and benefits to the surrounding communities. Although it is still at a relatively early stage, it highlights how important projects that build on tourism and heritage can be to the local economy.

Let me say a little about tourism, which is a huge industry for the nation. As Minister, I see it as one of my roles to make sure it becomes even more important, and I know I have support on the Government Benches in that respect. Tourism already contributes £68 billion directly to the UK economy each year. Inbound tourism has risen in the past three years, and in 2018 more than 37 million people visited the country and spent a phenomenal £22 billion. That is not to be overlooked.

Visitors are spread far and wide throughout the country and travel to all parts of our nation—all regions and areas—so tourism is a good way to spread wealth. Whether they go to England’s coast, to historic cities, to the highlands of Scotland, to the glens of Antrim or to castles in Wales, there is all sorts to attract them. Indeed, there are also our natural landscapes, whether it is the Somerset levels in my constituency of Taunton Deane, the Yorkshire dales or the North York moors national park just beyond the boundaries of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Tourism creates jobs in every local authority in the country, and the money that visitors spend directly supports local economies and benefits communities. It also creates great opportunities for investment and growth. Indeed, in the north-east the benefits have already been felt, to a great extent: international visits have hit new heights in the past five years, and visitors have spent a great deal of money, with £300 million spent in 2018. That is not insignificant.

I am of course fully aware of the importance of the UK’s unique and far-reaching heritage offer and the key role it plays in attracting visitors up and down the country, helping to drive tourism. Visitors travel in their thousands to see outstanding heritage sites such as Fountains Abbey and Belsay Hall—both in the north-east—or Wells cathedral and Glastonbury tor, both down in Somerset. There is a plethora of wonderful sites to choose from.

Heritage makes a big contribution to the economy: the heritage sector alone brings in £29 billion of the £68 billion that tourism attracts, and it employs 450,000 people. Heritage tourists made more than 230 million visits in 2018. I am well aware of the part that heritage plays, and we heard from the hon. Gentleman lots of examples of how heritage is part of the Discover Brightwater project.

If one builds around heritage, pride rises in the community. I recently responded to a debate in Westminster Hall about Hull, which has been a city of culture. All the investment in the culture and heritage in that city has meant that pride in the city has risen, and three out of every four people in Hull are now very proud to live there. Apparently, that was not the case a few years ago. A lot of that is because of the work to build on the projects in which people have been engaged.

For all those reasons, I was very interested to hear about the Discover Brightwater project, to which the National Lottery Heritage Fund, with which my Department enjoys a close relationship, committed £2.64 million of spending in spring 2018. As we have heard, the project brings together a partnership of local bodies and charities, all working to restore and reveal the considerably rich industrial and agricultural heritage along the length of the river. I was really interested to hear about the collieries and that side of things, as well as the armaments factory and the archaeological digs.

I wish to touch on a couple of the treasures that are already in this patch. One is the Stockton and Darlington railway, which was the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives. It was opened in 1825 and connected the collieries with the port of Stockton-on-Tees. It crossed the River Skerne at Darlington on the impressive Skerne bridge, which is the oldest continuously operated railway bridge in existence—I have definitely learned something there. It was indeed on a stamp, and because the bridge was on the stamp, so too was the river, so it is already quite famous.

Then there is that amazing beast, the Durham ox, which we have heard about—an early example of the shorthorn cattle breed that helped to establish breed standards in the dairy industry. This matter is close to my heart, as I was brought up on a dairy farm where my father bred Ayrshire cattle, which I used to show with him at the local shows. Such examples are a really important part of our history that went on to influence our agricultural industry. The Discover Brightwater programme will build on that project to help interpret and share those stories, and I think it will be very popular.

I was pleased to learn about the wider community involvement and traineeships that are part of this project, including 20 short heritage skills courses and lots of community-led research. All these things chime very well with the tourism sector deal that we launched recently. I will mention that a bit more in a minute.

As a great lover of the great outdoors, I was especially glad to hear that the project will open up access to green spaces. I was also pleased to hear about the community involvement. Of course, access to green open space provides rewards for our mental health and physical wellbeing. There is a lot of data to show that access to green space can really help in those areas. The project is near some quite deprived areas, which often do not have such good access to green space, so I see it as being really beneficial there.

In a world where sustainability and the environment are increasingly important, I was glad to hear about the wider environmental benefits of the project, particularly with regard to improving water quality. We heard how terribly polluted the river was before, and that the situation has really been turned around. I was very interested to hear about the former wetland and the work to alleviate flooding and strengthen the nature-rich habitats. All this work will be a draw to visitors, as I know from experience because I come from the Somerset levels area—one of the world’s most famous international wetland sites. The area is really popular for tourists because of all the nature and wildlife it attracts. We have already heard that the otters and trout have returned to the River Skerne, which is absolutely wonderful, especially when one thinks of how polluted it was before. There has been a real turnaround and I think it will be a big draw.

I gather that the project will also open up better access, as well as cycle routes, walkways and walking routes, all of which I am sure will be popular. For lots of those reasons, I commend the Discover Brightwater project and other similar examples around the country, because they build on strengths such as heritage, working with communities and developing our already attractive areas, and make a great deal more of them. Tourism is a growing industry, with the number of international visitors set to rise, and we need to be ready for them with a good offer once we attract them here. That offer has to be of the highest calibre, and that means not just the attractions, but the accommodation—places for the people to stay, just as I stayed in Sedgefield—as well as the provenance of the food and drink. All these things can be built into the project, together with working on the prized landscape. The River Skerne project offers all this potential.

The £40 million Discover England fund, which was launched in 2016, demonstrated that this Government are committed to investing in the country’s visitor offer, making it as easy as possible for travellers to discover the variety and range that England has to offer. I will give a couple of examples. The England’s Coast project allows visitors to build itineraries and experiences based on England’s glorious coastal offer. We have a fabulous coast and fabulous beaches. In the north-east, that includes the Durham heritage coast—I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows it well—and the historic seaside resorts of Redcar and Saltburn-by-the-Sea. The Discover England fund is not the only way the Government have invested in tourism in the north-east either. Earlier this year, the coastal communities fund awarded £1.3 million to the Durham heritage coast partnership to create a visitor and events hub at Crimdon beach.

Those projects, and indeed all those supported by the Discover England fund and other funds in the past three years, illustrate the Government’s commitment to tourism in regions all around the country. I particularly welcome the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, which I was pleased to play a small part in, of another £5.5 million for the Discover England fund, which will enable it to carry on for the next year and, we hope, for a long time into the future. These projects demonstrate how well they work and what they can generate for the economy.

The Chancellor also announced an excellent deal yesterday for our arm’s length bodies, which include the Arts Council, which dispenses funds around the country for projects, and all our museums and galleries, all of which play a part in our visitor and heritage offer and attract many visitors. That was a really welcome announcement in the spending round yesterday.

The tourism sector deal, which was launched in June, is a clear demonstration of the Government’s commitment to the tourism industry and its potential for boosting productivity and ensuring that we are ready for the extra visitors we are expecting. It was the 10th sector deal that the Government have announced, and it includes a raft of measures that the whole industry came to agree were important to grow the industry. Those measures include a £250,000 conference centre broadband competition so that events and conference centres can bid for money to improve the connectivity of their conference centres. That is a big and growing sector with a lot of opportunity. I am not sure if there are any opportunities on the River Skerne for a conference or a centre, but you never know.

The sector deal also includes an ambition to build another 130,000 hotel rooms across the UK and to build in apprenticeships and mentoring schemes with business, all of which will help to strengthen this and make the whole industry increasingly professional. I was pleased, therefore, to hear from the hon. Member about the skills and the training in relation to the Skerne project. It will be very important to upskilling locals and keeping them in the area to earn their living.

To sum up, tourism is vital to the UK economy, and of course heritage is a big part of that, as well as all the things we have mentioned today, such as landscapes, access, places to stay—all the suggestions and ideas going into this project, not least the Durham Ox. I do not know if that is going to be a museum about the ox or a model being built of the ox, but I will be fascinated to find out what happens. I really hope that the hon. Member keeps the Department posted about how it is going. I wish him all the best of luck with it. Such projects always deserve a champion, and the House of Commons is just the right place to raise it, to get a bit of attention for the project and to entice more people up there. As the arts, heritage and tourism Minister, I would like to commend it and celebrate it. We need to celebrate and showcase these great things about our nation that will benefit the economy, bring local communities together, make them proud of where they live and make the rest of us proud of our glorious UK.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise for the unusual nature of raising a point of order at this time of day, after the Adjournment debate, but I wonder whether you have had any notice of a possible statement at some point by the Home Secretary to explain why the Prime Minister is currently attending a clearly party political electioneering stunt in Wakefield with what appears to be upwards of 50 police officers surrounding him for the benefit of the media and the Prime Minister’s clearly political speech. This is clearly entirely inappropriate.

I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee and we have regularly raised concerns about the lack of police resources. Many of us are often pictured with police officers—I am sure you have been yourself, Madam Deputy Speaker—when they are doing hard work in our communities, as they should be. Serious questions need to be asked about the use of police time in this way and the potential politicisation of the police. I wonder whether you have had any notice of the Home Secretary coming to explain why on earth this is going on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. It is a somewhat unusual point in the proceedings for a point of order, but I understand why he wished to bring it forward at this moment, its having presumably only just come to his attention. I have had no notice of any forthcoming statement or debate from any Ministers on this matter. However, the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers are certainly very careful to make sure that the House is always kept informed about matters concerning security—security for Members of Parliament, security for Ministers, and also, one would presume, the security of the Prime Minister. I am sure that if any further explanation about what is currently happening is required, Ministers will keep the House informed. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.