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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Do your research for a grand day out

TO find what the M6 can do for Cumbria – there is no better man to speak to than John Dunning. From farming to owning several businesses built on the motorway network – Mr Dunning has always embraced the opportunities it brings.

And he has absolutely no doubt that building business hubs around the M6 junctions through Cumbria – from Kendal, through Tebay and Penrith, and onto Carlisle and the Borders beyond – is definitely the route to take.

John has a sweeping vision as grand as the view over the M6 Lune Gorge – the most beautiful stretch of motorway in the UK. And he has the historical overview which is as all-arching in its compass, yet as relevant to modern day issues, as an image from Google Earth.

West Cumbria and Barrow have long since been the heavy industry hubs, the drivers of large-scale economic development.

East Cumbria, including the Eden Valley, is where the rich industrialists from West Cumbria built their country homes and acquired their land. Their very own Eden.

North Cumbria, including the county city of Carlisle, was dominated by the battles with the Border Reivers and developed a doggedness and resilience, still seen today, on the back of that stress and strife.

For creativity, Cumbria has long since turned to Kendal. The former wool town and its surrounding south Lakes became home to artists, writers and ultimately entrepeneurs who built such businesses as Gilkes, Croppers, Provincial and many more.

Penrith has stood at the heart of it all. Its landscape fertile for today’s start-up businesses, many of whom are springing up to build their enterprises with the help of Cumbria’s improved logistics.

It’s more than 40 years since John’s big idea transformed his family’s fortunes, and paved the way for Cumbria to fully grasp the M6 prize.

He’s now officially retired – like many such self-made entrepreneurs he still has an eagle eye on opportunities and a sharp business brain.

And his experiences are as relevant today as when the M6 first cut across his farm back in the late 1960s.

One such message is as direct as the road itself, cutting through the Cumbria countryside, (you could say cutting through the deposits in a farmer’s cattle field) – ‘do your research’.

John and his wife Barbara knew that motorists, for so long put off travelling further north by the congested, undulating and, to some drivers of the day, ‘fearsome’ A6 route over Shap, especially at the infamous Huck’s Brow, would arrive when their path was smoothed by the new motorway on which they would come to glide northwards with no thought of their previous travails.

The problem was they had no idea how many.

This was, let’s not forget, truly pioneering stuff.

The Dunnings were in for the tender to build a service station at Tebay.

“The oil companies’ assessment of the potential was way below ours,” says John.

“We were newcomers to this business. We were farmers. So we knew our research was crucial.

“These guys from the oil companies had a feeling on the back of their neck. They had been setting up filling stations all over the place.

“We did the work. I contacted all the A6 filling stations through Cumbria to ask them how much through traffic and how much local volume they had.

“I researched how much traffic other road developments had brought. I contacted a head of motorway development for the oil companies, who worked for BP and Shell, who was very helpful to us, so much so we became good friends and still see each other to this day.

“As it turned out at the end of the first year our estimates of the volume of traffic were proved to be almost exactly accurate. It goes to show there is no substitute for doing your research.”

From a background of farming, John’s motorway service station business was well and truly up and running.

North Cumbria was suddenly opened up to visitors. Thanks to the M6, motorists from the Lancashire towns and cities whose previous access to the northern Lakes through Kendal, Windermere and Ambleside, had been over passes, Dunmail Raise from Grasmere to Keswick, or Kirkstone Pass to Ulllswater, now had a far easier route, as did through traffic heading to and from Scotland. All good news for Tebay services.

“It opened up a mobile visitor economy far greater than ever before,” said John.

When the services first opened in 1972 John had successfully battled to be allowed to have 40 covers on the northbound side at Tebay. The Department of Transport had wanted him to have 20. Today there are 300 covers on each side of the motorway (the south side opened in 1993).

Right from the start the Dunnings knew the value of offering quality produce in the cafe. They linked up with caterers and bakers Birketts of Penrith.

That fresh food offering was far removed from the experience at many motorway services of the time.

Fast forward to 2013 and Westmorland Services has stayed several steps ahead of the rest – with top quality meats, produce from local farms and artisan food and drink in a farm shop, their own Rheged celebrity chef Peter Sidwell and development team creating dishes for the restaurant, and purebred beef burger stands serving quality sizzling delights right next to the car park.

John credits fine-food-loving daughter Sarah, who now runs the business, and the excellent team she has built around her, for many of the recent developments which have taken the food and drink offering to the next level.

With 200 purebred beef cattle and 1,300 mule ewes on their own Chapel Farm the Dunnings know their quality meats.

When it comes to customer service, they have also shown they know their onions.

Right from the start they created a “farmhouse atmosphere” to the service station. They employed 28 people (today that number has risen to 550). “We were hill people. We had come from working in the fields.

“The people who were working for us, they came from villages and towns where you wouldn’t often see that many visitors.

“Hill people are open people. If they meet people in the country they would speak to them. They would never dream of not doing. So when they worked for us they would speak to customers and say ‘what a grand day, and how are the family’. And people loved it.”

In those early days they would bus staff in with the bakery products.

“We brought them to work, gave them uniforms, fed them at work. It’s quite a social development,” says John.

That care for staff has remained. Even now they still have a minibus service picking up staff from the surrounding areas of Tebay, Brough, Kirkby Stephen, Ravenstonedale, Appleby and Penrith.

John is rightly keen to point out that the 550 now employed in his family business – which includes services on both M6 carriageways near Tebay, the J38 services a mile further south predominantly for truckers and coach drivers, (next year they will open another motorway services near Gloucester), a hotel, and Rheged conference and exhibition centre near Penrith – is far more than the 170 workers who lost their jobs when the LNER railway closed its operations at Tebay and line to Darlington – jobs that were aimed to be replaced by the M6 development.

He says politicians are wide of the mark when they talk of low-paid tourism jobs, pointing out that many jobs are part-time to fit in with people’s home lives, and such statements don’t take into account the well-paid jobs involved such as chefs, accountants, managers, and the skilled trades which are involved in keeping any business running.

“It is wrong to say that the tourism industry is poorly paid. There are many varied and well paid professional jobs, but there are also jobs at lesser rates that suit many rural people.

“Moreover, the availability of many full and part time jobs in remote rural areas brings additional income to farms and villages, which can be a critical factor in sustaining the viability of many hill farms and their role in retaining the structure of the landscape.

“There is an interdependence in hill areas between hill farming, landscape conservation, the protection of habitats and the wider land based economy.

“Public policy has tended over many years to resist business, including farm diversification, in the uplands, which has imposed a diminishing income into the land base.

“The threatened land based economy of the hills can only be sustained by growing the streams of income it receives.

“With care this can be done to benefit every interest and there are many excellent examples of it in Cumbria.

“Such policies have been pursued with considerable success, over a long period in the Alpine countries and Scandinavia.

“In Bavaria, for example, its modest upland farms are supported by a diversity of income sources that sustains, not only the economic wellbeing of its communities, but also the beauty and diverse life of its countryside.

“One person in a farming household might work for example, for Audi, BMW, or Siemens, the other might work on the farm. It sustains the small farms and communities.

“As a result, Bavaria is one of the most prosperous, regional economies in Europe where agriculture and neighbouring businesses thrive.

“It could happen here if there was the will, but I am reminded of words from a famous speech by the late Gerald Wibberley (professor of countryside planning at London University) in 1976:- ‘Either we can divide our countryside into a patchwork of primary uses, or we can unite it in the totality of the rural economy’.

“We may have changed a little, but not much and not enough”.

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