Why?

There can be no doubt that Shildon’s fortunes have changed since the closure of the BREL works in the 1980’s. The North of England as a whole suffered terribly in that decade through the demise of the mining and steel industries, and the loss of the works was just one part of that puzzle of decline for the region.

Shildon, and the New Shildon end of town, in particular, would never have been industrially relevant had it not been for the resources that lay around it. As the old saying went “where there’s muck, there’s brass” and there was muck to be had aplenty in the South Durham Coalfields in the nineteenth century. With coal abundant underground the challenge was to get it to the coast as fast as possible to take it to where it was needed, and the answer to that challenge became the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

The railway needed plenty of workers to produce the machinery needed and to maintain it. Shildon was the natural place to start, being at the end of the line as it were. I’m not going to go into that as enough has been written about it already, but the skills and labour shortage drew people in from all over the country, and a town exploded.

Fast forward to the late twentieth century. Britain’s Government of the day had lost interest in the industrial capabilities of the North, with the wheelers, dealers and investment bankers preferring the financial opportunities to be gained from a global free market economy. BRELs engineering works had to close.

The resulting exodus of skilled workers and loss of investment in the town started a slow economic decline. Townspeople moved on. Those who stayed were either fortunate enough to find alternative employment or became poorer. The town itself began a transformation towards becoming a ‘dormitory town’ for workers that travelled elsewhere to work.

The consequence of this is that, now in the early decades of the twenty-first century It’s still considered an economically deprived area, and one that doesn’t attract a great deal of inward investment with some very significant exceptions. One of these is the arrival of Locomotion, a sister site to the National Railway Museum at York. This is mainly because even though the rail industry is no longer active, we’re still recognised as the “Cradle of the Railways” and we’re still at one end of the route of the Stockton and Darlington Railway which continues to be a functioning railway route.

This focus on railway heritage gives us in Shildon something to work with, much as the Bishop’s Palace at Bishop Auckland along with its connection to the Bishops of Durham gives it something of a heritage foundation to build upon.

The challenge is how to make the best use of that, and build upon it to make and maintain a more rounded feature of it that can benefit the town today. We should not be ashamed to capitalise upon what we have in heritage terms as a means to try to keep our community vibrant and relevant.

There are some excellent organisations in the area working on curating, developing or documenting different aspects of our town’s cultural heritage. For example the Brusselton Incline Group have gone to great lengths to preserve and highlight that feature, and are seeking to extend their influence into the town through a display of sleeper stones at what would have been the entrance to the railway works. The Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway are looking at railway heritage assets and stories in the area as well as the part Shildon should play in the S&DR Heritage Action Zone and the run up to the 2025 railway bicentenary. The Shildon Recall History Group have amassed a wealth of documented heritage collateral. The more recently established Friends of The Wizard and The Typhoon have been exploring the role of Shildon born bandmaster/composers in the Victorian brass band music community. There is even a group that has dedicated its purpose to keeping Shildon Station maintained and engaging young people in heritage-related public art that makes the station, though quite modern, more of a destination on our town’s rail trail.

But there are still quite a few potential cultural assets that are in some danger of being neglected, forgotten about or possibly even lost. These have not up until this point fallen under the care or attention of any heritage focused group. I know, because people tell me, that our townspeople do worry about this and are sometimes angry because they feel that something should be, or should have been, done.

Since 2017 I have been a serving Town Councillor on Shildon Town Council and have made it a priority to spend more time listening to people. I regularly hear “Someone should do….” something. But nobody ever seems to quite be able to put their finger on who that “someone” is. Usually there is a perception that Councils and Authorities should take responsibility. Looking back into news of the past it was ever thus. These bodies collect money from us all through taxes, or, more so in the past they have received money from central Government, and everyone feels they know best how that should be spent. The truth is that not everyone’s expectations can be met, and equally there are always going to be those of us that are going to be disappointed by the choices these authorities make.

Durham County Council made significant investment in bringing Locomotion to Shildon, and into restorative measures on some of the town’s older assets. That is mainly on the proviso that the national Railway Museum (or more lately the Science Museum) take responsibility for the day to day running and maintenance. This is an arrangement that has worked well with those features, and as we will see in the coming year or two there are exciting, and expensive, improvements on the way. But what of the smaller heritage features that are spread further away from the museum site?

One thing I have learned since becoming a Town Councillor is that the Town Council is not the answer, particularly in terms of their ability to spend to make improvements. The finances of the Town Council are really quite tightly and efficiently managed so that what comes in is as close as possible to what has to be spent throughout the year to maintain the services and facilities it provides, owns or has statutory responsibility over. It brings in enough to cover its costs each year and maintains a modest reserve to prevent it ‘going bust’ in the event of an unexpected incident. When it needs more money it has two choices – it can ask to raise Council Tax (which it sometimes has to do as those basic annual expense increase in line with market prices) or it can do the same as anyone else can in terms of asking for grant funding from other funding bodies. Even in that sense there is a limit to how much it can ask for. These funding bodies distribute their money cautiously and tend not to concentrate on issuing disproportionate amounts to any single authority.

Individual County Councillors, too, receive a very limited personal budget for their neighbourhood, between £0k and £15k if I’m not mistaken, and are generally expected to spend it on more immediate needs of the people of their communities, particularly in the case of a relatively deprived community such as ours. Issues such as relief of that deprivation or public safety will by necessity take priority over the preservation of the past. Being fair to our town’s councillors at Town and County level there have been cases where individual councillors have seen the value in investing in the addition of, or preservation of, a heritage asset. I mentioned the DCC investment in Locomotion but there was also the acquisition of coal wagons by Gary Huntington which at the time of writing have been recently installed by Shildon Town Council as a reminder that Shildon’s railway story is in its turn indebted to the presence of coal in the South Durham Coalfield.

What can we do, then, when we become aware of an issue relating to our town’s heritage that needs some urgent attention but which is unlikely to find support from one of those authority bodies? Who is the “someone” that we ought to turn to? It would be easiest to place the expectation on authorities and then lay the blame later when we don’t get what we want.

When members of this organisation first became aware of the predicament of the Shildon Railway Institute that was the question we faced. On the face of it the Institute is a commercial venture, albeit one within a historic listed building; and we should remember that the problem with the Institute is twofold in that it has been struggling as a venture and is also occupying a building that is on the verge of being in danger.

Our inclination to an answer to that as a collective of individuals was that we should attempt to be the ‘someone’ collectively. We’d bring together the assorted skills, specialisms and abilities we had to attempt to do something as a group of ordinary citizens with common interest. A little research showed us that other organisations regionally had been turned around through “community activism”; though admittedly others had been saved through being handed over to business. The issue with that latter path was that the future of that asset is then under even less influence from the community.

We started under the name of the “Save Our Stute” Campaign Group, working as a separate consulting body with the Management Committee of the Shildon Railway Institute. We felt it was important to be a separate body as to sweep in otherwise might be perceived as an attempted takeover and not as respectful as the situation required. Before long we gained an appreciation that to be able to do some of the things we want to do for the Institute we would by necessity need to become a more formal body. In order to fundraise transparently for example we need to be able to bank, and to apply for help from those sources where it might be available we would need to have a strong identity that makes clear what our position and role is in respect to the people and organisations we are trying to help.

As a consequence we have become a Community Interest Company under the name Shildon Heritage Alliance CIC. It’s a great name and reflects well our purpose. We’ve chosen to ally with each other to contribute our collective skills and abilities, and we’ll ally to other organisations and purposes within Shildon to do our best to help achieve or facilitate positive outcomes for our town’s heritage assets. We wanted to keep our name free from limitation to any one project as, should we succeed with the Railway Institute, we would look to target other achievements.

We are a community movement. We’re trying to be the ‘someone’ that people have looked to here. But we will also welcome others who share our vision and objectives into our ranks. The more we grow this idea of ‘being that someone’ the more chance we stand of succeeding.

If anyone is interested in that principle we’ll always be very pleased to discuss it. Drop us a line.