Economic Development

Ten years of working for Morpeth

[Download the original article in Inside Morpeth July 2016]

It is 10 years since Greater Morpeth Development Trust (GMDT) was established as a community-led organisation working on behalf of the people of Morpeth to improve the town and surrounding countryside for their benefit through the implementation and delivery of quality projects enhancing the environment, safeguarding the town’s heritage, and promoting the economic and social well-being of all those living and working in the area.  What has the Trust has achieved and delivered in that time?

More than £7 million worth of projects endorsed by the community and supported by a host of key partners, funders and volunteers covering a wide spectrum of life in and around Morpeth that might very well never have been devised and delivered if the Trust had not existed, would be the simplistic headline answer to that question.  A quick and easy response but one that by no means tells the whole story of the contribution GMDT has made – and continues to make – to life in the town.

Over the past decade there have been some spectacular Trust contributions the most notable of which would the design and delivery of the Morpeth Town Hall project in 2009 that not only repaired, refreshed and refurbished the iconic 300 year old building but gave it a new lease of life as a ‘fit for purpose’ 21st Century focal point of life in the town.

There have been other high profile projects including improving and opening access to riverside and woodland walks into and around the town from Mitford, through to the picturesque village of Bothal from the Whorral Bank and the ancient Bluebell Woods which won a Northumbria in Bloom Gold conservation project award for the way the work was carried out.  Coupled with these physical works improving paths and fencing and installing seating, GMDT has been responsible for designing and placing informative and environmentally sympathetic signage in key locations so that local residents, visitors to the town and walkers could be more knowledgeable and better informed about what to look for on their way.  More than 100 signs have been erected over the past decade.

Then GMDT played a leading part in Morpeth’s Emily Inspires! campaign to honour and mark the part local suffragette Emily Wilding Davison played in changing Edwardian attitudes to women being given the right to vote.  As part of the campaign that began with the fitting restoration of Emily’s grave in St Mary’s Churchyard, a year long programme of events culminated in a day of activities that attracted widespread national and even international media attention and coverage to mark the 100th anniversary of the return of her body to Morpeth after she was fatally injured when she was struck by King George V’s horse Anmer during the running of the 1913 Epsom Derby.

Over the past 10 years there have been many other perhaps more modest GMDT - but just as impacting - projects that have made a real difference to the lives of local people.  Each year the Trust supports the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering featuring the area’s rich cultural traditions as well as organising the town’s contribution to the nationwide Heritage Open Days’ celebration of all that’s best about Britain’s great architectural history

The Trust has encouraged local people to go out walking to improve their health and fitness; taken part in environmental clean-ups; staged the family fun ‘Picnic in the Park’ afternoons at the very start of the school summer holidays; supported local authors such as Bridget Gubbins by publishing her fascinating series of books delving into so many aspects of Morpeth’s history; brought professional theatre to the town through regular visits by Northumberland Theatre Company; co-ordinated an annual World Book Night to celebrate the enjoyment of reading;  and re-introduced the movies back to the town through the monthly cinema nights it organises in the Town Hall.

The successful community magazine “Inside Morpeth” has benefitted from the Greater Morpeth Development Trust’s with initial and on-going encouragement and support over the past seven year ago.

The Trust works through a series of ‘Interest Groups’ each headed by a Board Director covering the arts and culture, heritage, the environment and the community.  With a small professional staff of just three, it relies heavily on the support of volunteers from board level down to bodies on the ground to run many of the events and activities listed above.

So partnerships beginning at that level right up to working with major national and regional funders and supporters prepared to back the Trust’s work with grants and funding, remains fundamental to its success and on-going ability to bring forward new and exciting projects such as the re-modelling of Morpeth’s railway station to modernise its facilities and give it an imaginative and sustainable future as both a place of work and a major gateway into the town.

The Trust has also facilitated a study into on an ambitious HeArt plan to give Morpeth its own arts and cultural centre which many feel is notably missing from the town’s facilities – a good example of GMDT raising the possibility of what can be achieved and bringing partners together to try and realise that ambition.

GMDT’s Chief Executive David Lodge came from a commercial background before becoming involved in economic and community development and is passionate about seeing Morpeth’s economy thrive.  He has, therefore, pro-actively chaired the Town Team set up as a partnership between the Trust, Morpeth Town Council, Morpeth & District Chamber of Trade, Sanderson Arcade and Inside Morpeth since it was established in the wake of the Government’s Portas Initiative to improve the trading lot of the country’s high streets.

Together the partners work to raise the profile of Morpeth and make a positive impact on the local economy which corresponds with one of the Trust’s key objectives. 

David also chaired the Economy Group for the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan along with a number of Board Directors and volunteers who contributed to the vision for the town and is now keen to see that vision realised through the development of a resourced action plan.

“The past 10 years have been full of challenges alongside the exciting delivery of so many projects that we believe have made Morpeth a better place to live, work and visit,” said Doug Phillips who has chaired the Trust Board for most of that time.  “We are proud of the fact that the Trust has made a real difference to the lives of very many local people through our work.

“But it there is no disguising the fact that it has been difficult at times because for a non-statutory organisation such as ours funding is always an issue.  We rely on the support of partners and funders and we have been fortunate that we have built up solid working relationships with people who have bought into the vision of a Morpeth of the future that we share with many in the community

“We need that backing to continue going forward as an organisation just as we need the support of the wonderful volunteers without whom we could not do what we do.  The strength of GMDT as an organisation lies in the cohesiveness that exists between our staff and volunteers both at Board level and in our interest groups where there are shared ambitions to deliver quality outcomes for the people of Morpeth across a whole range of activities.

“This approach has built strong working partnerships with local authorities, the private sector, the third sector and community organisations and we want to extend these links going forward.  Over the past decade we have been proud to have been involved in making Morpeth a better place to live, work and visit.”

Greater Morpeth Development Trust’s has already delivered investment into the town totalling some £7m that might otherwise never have happened.  By the end of 2017 that figure could rise to closer to £9m if the Trust’s ambitions for Morpeth Railway Station are fulfilled.

Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan

Members of the Trust played an significant role in developing the vision, evidence base and policies for the local economy aspects of the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan which was finally made in May 2016.

The role undertaken by the Local Economy Topic Group was to:

  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the local economy
  • Consider potential “economic drivers” and consider future employment land requirements
  • Identify future employment sites and consider how these might be delivered
  • Consider the town centre, looking at retail development and visitor potential including both heritage and environmental attractions
  • Download the Local Economy Report


Photo Credit: Terry Hackett

Market Town Welcome

GMDT commissioned Miller Research to produce a Destination Plan for Morpeth which is an action plan for the whole partnership of organisations that are involved in delivering the visitor experience within the town and its hinterland.  It covers the period from April 2009 to 2019, and is designed to be a working document that can be added to as the town and its partners identify new opportunities for development.

The plan provides a framework and rationale for investment into the visitor economy and helps to clarify how the key partners and agencies can work to help develop the tourism potential of Morpeth.  The objectives of this plan are important to Morpeth because tourism not only supports businesses, jobs and suppliers, but it is particularly significant in rural areas and market towns where there are fewer alternatives. In addition:

  • Visitors help support local heritage, culture and community services
  • Tourism is a reason to conserve special buildings, historic sites, beautiful landscapes and important wildlife sites
  • Tourism is a vital element in regenerating an area
  • Visitors can also create a critical mass of trade for the local economy, by bringing in new people and repeat visitors who spend on local goods and services. This can bring about growth, especially in the retail and hospitality sectors, and can contribute to an increase in quality as more discerning consumers are brought into the town.

Market towns are a vital element in the visitor economy across the North East and it will be important to make the most of their natural and cultural heritage and distinctiveness, to achieve these objectives and develop an excellent visitor welcome. Morpeth has a key role to play in this respect, as a local service centre to the North of Newcastle, but also due to its excellent location, close to the coast, the city and Northumberland National Park as well as other regional market towns. Much of the current visitor traffic to the town consists of local day trips and families and these should be further encouraged. However, at the same time, there is potential to expand on the number of short breaks and activity-based holidays in and around the town.

Download the Morpeth Market Town Welcome Destination Plan