While People In Common had bought the Mill at Altham in order to fulfill its ambition to have a place that was “In the countryside within easy reach of the town” and it definitely felt as if it was located on the rural side of the urban fringe. Historically Altham had been a very early industrialised rural parish. The whole area was studded with coal pits Some dating back to the early days of mining in the area. The Northern Mine Research Society‘s website lists ten separate historic pits in the Parish. In addition there were pits in the surrounding villages at; Hapton Valley, Huncoat, Rishton, Martholme and Padiham, all forming part of the wider Burnley Coalfield. There were also two coal fired powerstations within sight of the cornmill. Calder Colliery, situated just across the river from The Mill, had closed in 1958 and much of the pit head buildings demolished in the 60’s and the last deep mine in the area at Hapton Valley closed in 1982.
What this long history of mining locally meant was that by the time People In Common were renovating The Mill there was a huge amount of coal mine reclamation going on in the area. This included extensive tree planting on spoil heaps and former pit head sites. A friend of a friend who was contracted to plant up the old Huncoat pit site contacted us to say that he had a thousand tree whips ‘left over’ from the planting scheme and had run out of places to plant them. So could he rent a part of the field at The Mill to grow them on to sell at a later date?
We were always reluctant to rent the field out to people outside the co-op (The tree man wasn’t the first, or the last to ask.) and we decided instead to buy the trees off him and grow them on ourselves – I think we paid him £70 and he planted them in rows out on the field.
So what do you do with a thousand trees? Well we used them to transform the open field into a sort of nascent forest garden, we eventually gave lots of them away and I used them to take part in an early experiment in Basic Income.
In January 1982 the Thatcher government chose Burnley as one of the places to pilot its proposed ‘£40-a-week’ Enterprise Allowance Scheme. At the time I was looking for a way to take a break from doing building work and this seemed an interesting way of potentially diversifying the work we did. To get on the scheme you had to have been unemployed for 8 weeks and have savings or a loan of £1000 to put into your ‘business’. Later when the scheme was fully launched you also had to produce a basic business plan. But I don’t remember having to do that for the pilot. And so off I went to a couple of training sessions and was accepted on the scheme to try and make a go of – Altham Nursery; Trees and Herbs . Looking back I don’t think I (or we) thought that there was really a viable business in selling trees and it was more a way of just funding a break for me. I also remember thinking that this was a really interesting way of transforming the benefit system – without actually having come across the concept of Basic Income.
…These eligibility criteria clearly mean this couldn’t be defined as a basic income. Nonetheless, the scheme offered participants some means of subsistence, a financial floor they could stand on; once in the scheme the payments were an unconditional cash transfer, similar in structure to basic income. Any additional income was theirs to keep and the support wasn’t at risk of disappearing if their earnings rose.The peculiar story of Margaret Thatcher and Basic Income
People In Common ‘lent’ me the £1000 (A rather nonsensical concept when you are income pooling) and I spent six months cycling the five miles out to The Mill on my three work days each week. And busied myself doing odd jobs around the place; Bits of hard landscaping, some basic maintenance on the boiler room ( The main building was still largely derelict.) and the occasional bit of tending trees. Once a month a business advisor came to see me – a retired marketing man from Cheshire who thought planting trees was a wonderful thing to do and thoroughly enjoyed his well paid day trip to Lancashire each month for a chat and a tour of our field.
Other than that no-one bothered me. £40 dropped into my bank account each week with no strings, or means test attached. After six months I went back to doing half time on the building job the group were working on in Colne – still getting the £40 a week. At the end of the pilot year the money ended I went back to working as the co-op’s carpenter – I don’t remember any follow up or anyone coming to find out what had happened to Altham Nursery. My assumption at the time was that it was a useful way for the government to massage the unemployment figures and that was all they had really been interested in.
The full Enterprise Allowance scheme would eventually go on fund some 325,000 people across the country. I knew friends, artists, musicians and craftworkers who used it. We would use it again after we had moved to The Mill. When Kate used it to set herself up as a craftworker and in a more successful attempt to set up a business when we began Altham Hardwood Centre. We were in good company. Those who made use of the scheme to get their businesses/careers off the ground included: Leeds Postcards, artists; Tracey Emin & Jeremy Deller, Creation Records , Comedians; Jeremy Hardy and Alan Davies, NoFit State circus and the founders of Viz magazine.
The trees that had been planted out on the field were a pretty mixed bag of species. Mostly hardy natives; ash, oak, wild cherry, alder, hawthorn and blackthorn, but also including quite a bit of sycamore and the odd ornamental such as red oak. We had done some earlier tree & hedge planting. I can’t remember now if it was with woodland trust offerings. But I do recall a freezing weekend with a group of WWOOFers planting the hedge out around the edge of the field.
We use some of the thousand trees to establish a shelter belt along the edge of the field and a small wooded area at the far end. Plus other planting around the site. This didn’t make that big a dent in the numbers so over the next few years we started to give them away to friends and anyone else who was looking for trees. Among other places some were planted out by the local Woodcraft Folk group up at Clarion House on the side of Pendle Hill and a handful were also planted on the edge of Peace Street in Burnley. I’ve just done a quick Google Earth tour of the places I could remember the trees went to and they all look to be thriving.
The result of our tree planting on the field at Altham was to create a very different landscape from the one that was there when we bought it. One that now has; more biodiversity, more wildlife, more trees!
I would argue that the transformation of the 3 and 1/2 acres of open field to woodland that has occurred over some 20 to 40 years at Altham Cornmill is not unusual in the context of intentional communities. From Heronsgate Chartist Land Colony in 1846, through the Whiteway Colony in the Cotswolds in 1898, right up to the likes of Lifespan up on the moors above Holmfirth and People In Common in the 1970’s, the result in landscape terms of intentionally putting people back on the land is to change open fields into a mix of woodland and gardens. People on the land plant trees – with or without help from Margaret Thatcher!
Coda: Years later, when we were setting up the Hardwood Centre and gave away the last of the tree nursery trees. Some to a community group in Galgate nr Lancaster. I was invite to ‘Judge’ the Galgate Village Flower show – This involved me wandering around Galgate with the vicar deciding which gardens to award prizes too This was something of a big ask as when it comes to flowers. I might describe myself as somewhat horticulturally challenged. I eventually realised that my role was to relieve the vicar of any responsibility; for having to choose one of his parishioners over another for a prize. – So happily taking my cues from him I declared the winners for each category and bunked off back to Burnley dodging any local diplomatic fallout.