“Cultural Rebirth.” Covid Hit the Ambitious Vision of Barrow’s Future

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The project aims to make the city a top tourist destination, sometimes described as one of the unhappiest places in Britain.

Barrow-in-Furness residents, the Cumbrian outpost that is regularly identified as one of the most unfortunate places in Britain and has one of the highest death rates for Covid 19 in the United Kingdom, are used to negative news about their area.

The council became one of the first in the nation to declare a poverty emergency three months ago, and visitors seldom visit the windy peninsula near the Lake District.

But that could change too.

A new vision for the future of the city has been created by a project involving Barrowians from all walks of life, influenced by Covent Garden in London, cooperative farms in Barcelona and the vineyards of southern France.

Barrow, which is a 45-minute drive from the nearest highway, might be hard to see as one of the best tourist attractions in the U.K., but that’s exactly the objective. “It’s a really bold vision,” said Sam Plum, Barrow-in-Furness Town Council’s executive director. “We’re not going to change the world overnight, but it feels like a significant moment.”
The New Constellation project brought together 15 local personalities – including a police officer, a tire fitter, a GP and a dock worker – with the help of a £ 50,000 grant from the National Lottery, to create bold ideas to transform the fortunes of the region.

Their strategy, which Plum says will set the course of the city government for decades to come, involves replacing parking lots with playgrounds, turning side streets into a nature park, and turning the tired downtown into a bazaar sort of Covent Garden with small independent shops.

Community farms could help reduce persistent food insecurity in parts of Barrow, where during the first countywide freeze in the spring, food bank usage jumped 280 percent. A nod to Barcelona, where local farmers have set up shops, and to the vineyards of southern France, where many backpackers spent the summer picking grapes, is the concept of cooperative allocations.

The challenge is outstanding.

The disadvantage is profoundly ingrained in parts of Barrow; on average, residents in the poorest area live 11 years longer than those in the richest borough.

The proud tradition of the city’s shipbuilding has left a legacy of respiratory disease, rendering older barrowers more vulnerable to coronavirus. This partially explains why Barrow has one of the highest death rates of Covid 19 in the UK, with a positive test of 168 deaths per 100,000 people within 28 days, relative to the UK. 103 per 100,000, on average.

The town also has an infection rate higher than normal, possibly due in part to the predominance of terraced housing, which accounts for 55 percent of all Barrow homes. Poverty and public sector jobs are risk factors that would make Barrow vulnerable as well.

Plum, who took over as president of the council 18 months ago, said, “These kinds of inequities are unacceptable and we’ve been trying to change them for years,” “There have been so many different government interventions, so many programs, so many funding streams, but those inequities and that poverty still exist, and if anything, it’s been exacerbated by Covid.”
The cause for optimism is there.

Barrow is home to the largest U.K. shipyard, where the next generation of nuclear submarines is being constructed by BAE Systems.

There, the company hires almost 9,000 people and revealed plans last week to recruit another 400 apprentices. The region will also benefit from the Eden Project North, with a new community center on Walney Island in Barrow, set to open across Morecambe Bay in 2024.

Tom Lowes, 21, a Barrow resident who works at BAE Systems as a technology coordinator, said he hoped the vision would turn the town of 57,000 into a vibrant conurbation that could compete for visitors with the Lake District – frequently described as England’s longest cul-de-sac because it has just one access road.

He said, adding, “I think this town has the potential to be greener, to have a lot more culture, to attract and retain different people who want to work in the town and live here,” “I think we’re on the verge of the cultural rebirth of Barrow.”
Plum hopes to win a 25 million lbs. award.

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