Alston NHS 70th Birthday 7th July 2018
Alston NHS 70th Birthday 7th July 2018
Alston Market Square Gathering (Photo: Courtesy of Simon Danby)
Alston Market Square Gathering (Photo: Courtesy of Simon Danby)

Alston Moor – the canary in the mine for communities


Alston Moor is a remote rural area, high in the North Pennines, in a north-east corner of Cumbria which is geographically disconnected from the rest of the county, its district council area (Eden) and from its political constituency of Penrith and the Border (held by Conservative MP Rory Stewart, but with a burgeoning CLP).  The largest settlement, a small village by most standards but holding a market town charter, is Alston, and there are two smaller villages and a number of hamlets and isolated dwellings across high Pennine moorland bordering Northumberland and County Durham.  It has a community hospital – the Ruth Lancaster James Cottage Hospital – which is the focus of this paper.


NHS England’s Sustainability and Transformation Plans are set to deliver a blow to many communities across England.  The publication[1] on Monday (26/09/16) of the so-called Success Regime’s plans for North, West and East Cumbria makes clear that their scheme will destroy the most remote rural community in England.  If Alston Moor is rendered non-viable, it is only a matter of time before other communities across the country are destroyed by the cruel and thoughtless policies of this government.

The document offers a number of options for community hospitals throughout the region.  Each one includes the removal of all in-patient beds at Alston Community Hospital.  It refers also[2] to the creation of Integrated Care Communities [ICCs].  These ICCs are to be based upon “natural communities of between 20,000 and 70,000 people” which it is claimed will “realise our ambition of being recognised for our expertise in delivering integrated health and care for people living in rural, remote and dispersed communities.”


Alston Moor is a community of 2,000 people spread over an area of about 20 square miles.  To reach the next centres of population with any sort of medical services is a journey of at least 20 miles, along roads which are narrow, winding and seriously affected by winter weather, rising to almost 2000 feet (from a baseline of 900 feet and higher).  There is virtually no public transport.

As part of an ICC of the size mentioned, Alston Moor would be a disconnected outpost (with travel times of 40 minutes or more for any staff based in e.g. Penrith coming to Alston).  Not only that, but the document states (page 28) that it is offering no detail about the ICCs and the current consultation is purely about the in-patient beds at community hospitals.  The plan for an innovative integration of local sheltered housing, care home and hospital beds, put forward by the local GP practice and the League of Friends of the hospital, gains no mention whatsoever, despite some interest having been shown.  It was, however, stated at a previous meeting that there would NOT be a seamless move from the current situation to any Integrated Care utopia; beds would go before an alternative was in place.


If the in-patient beds are removed, the nurse-led minor injuries unit will cease to exist.  Without the in-patient beds, the GP surgery (currently staffed appropriately, including a pharmacy) is endangered, since the population numbers are inadequate on their own to support a full surgery and additional income comes from the hospital work.

Without a fully-staffed surgery or minor injuries unit, few people with young children will choose to move in or even stay, so the primary schools and small 11-16 secondary school are liable to close.  Older people or those with chronic conditions are likely to move to live closer to essential healthcare.  What has been a unique, lively, self-sufficient, interesting and engaged community will simply cease to exist.


The thinking behind the Success Regime and other STPs is purely economic and presumably designed to make privatisation of elements easier.  No holistic consideration of the changes has been undertaken, and costs are likely to be greater – merely not in this part of the NHS budget.  Instead, social and care services, housing in other areas, mental health services and many more will be impacted, quite apart from the financial, social and psychological hardships to be endured by the current residents.

The Labour Party, one of whose proudest achievements has been the NHS, rightly prides itself on regarding each individual in the whole UK as valuable and deserving the same opportunities and support.  Enabling the whole population to live a dignified, economically and socially viable life is a key value of Labour Party policy.  If a small, remote, rural community is regarded as of no consequence in the scheme of things, this would give the lie to the assertion of such a value.

Through a finance-centred, rather than person-centred, approach this community is threatened with its extinction. Which community will be next?  A remote rural community may be unlike many other communities in certain characteristics, but the thinking that could lead to the demise of Alston Moor will also, in the fullness of time, result in the end for other communities across the country.  By understanding that this is the ‘canary in the coal-mine’ and vigorously opposing the proposals from a solidly Labour viewpoint, the party can offer a radical approach to challenge the damage being done to the UK by this Conservative government.

For further information:  contact Alix Martin, Penrith and the Border CLP, on 07568 534174

Researched and written by Alice Bondi, Penrith and the Border CLP 

[1] The document can be found via the ‘Current Consultation’ link at

[2] See particularly pages 12, 13, 28, 29 and 31.

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