Senior leaders of North Yorkshire County Council have paid tribute to Cllr John Blackie, crusading member for the Upper Dales and champion of the resilience and ingenuity of rural communities, who sadly died this weekend.
Cllr Blackie, who led the Independent group on the county council and has been a member since 1997, was a passionate and intrepid representative for the Upper Dales communities. He was tireless in his fight to keep “deeply” rural areas sustainable and a resolute campaigner to maintain effective local services - hospitals, schools, transport, banks, libraries, post offices - for villages and remote communities.
Cllr Blackie had the interests of young and old at heart and was particularly concerned that the Dales should remain home to young families.
When austerity hit in 2008 and North Yorkshire, like all other councils, had to operate within severely constrained budgets, Cllr Blackie worked with members and county council staff to show how communities could pull together. With county council backing he championed communities delivering services for themselves to meet their own needs.
Cllr Carl Les, North Yorkshire’s Leader said: “Our thoughts must go firstly to his family and close friends. He and I joined the Council at the same time so shared many of the same experiences and circumstances. He was tireless in his advocacy of the place where he lived. Not Dales born and bred, although sometimes it was hard to think he wasn't, he had come from the Home Counties and fell in love with the Upper Dales and especially its communities and people.
“His energy was all the more remarkable because of the serious medical issues he faced. But he didn't just shout out about the local challenges, he met them head on with innovative solutions usually involving the County Council where he was so proud to be a member, solutions that are now being copied across the country.
“His legacy will be every litre of petrol sold in Hawes, every day the library is open, every journey on the Little White Bus network and many other examples of the community in partnership.”
Cllr Blackie took the lead with the county council to set up the Upper Wensleydale Community Office in Hawes, adapting the library building for wider community purposes. Hawes went on to become the county council’s first community library, staffed by volunteers and the prototype for all other community libraries across the county, contributing to their overriding success. Cllr Blackie was always proud that the Hawes library was open for longer and had a larger footfall when run by the community, than previously.
He was a forensic and formidable chair of the county council’s scrutiny of health committee, always on the alert for any diminution in local health services for rural communities, campaigning zealously to maintain maternity and acute services at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton.
Richard Flinton, North Yorkshire’s chief executive said: “The loss of John is an enormous blow for North Yorkshire and particularly its rural areas. He was one of the greatest community champions I have ever worked with; tireless on issues, protector of rural life and a community entrepreneur without match.
“He campaigned on issues, often fiercely, but crucially he delivered innovative solutions, particularly for his beloved Upper Dales. He was driven by deep concern for people. With all that he did, he did it with charm, great wit and humour and occasional bite. I, with so many others, will miss him hugely, but his legacy is strong, not least the lessons and principles that those of us who knew him will never forget.”
When the post office decided to close its branch in Hawes, Cllr Blackie became the postmaster, the community took charge of the sorting office and moved the post office into community office.
When the Upper Dales was in danger of losing part of its bus service network as a result of increased operating costs, Cllr Blackie summoned a posse of volunteer drivers and with county council backing through the supply of a minibus fleet, he established The Little White Bus. This community transport company runs scheduled services through Swaledale and Wensleydale between Richmond and remote Garsdale Station, timed to meet trains arriving from Leeds and Carlisle. Now The Little White Bus has ten minibuses and one Land Rover and carries 60,000 passengers, both locals and tourists a year.
When the petrol station in Hawes was threatened with closure, the Upper Dales Community Partnership, of which he was director, took it on and kept it going – the first community petrol station in the country. Cllr Blackie boasted that petrol at the community petrol station was the cheapest for miles around, beating supermarket prices.
With the announcement that the last bank was to close in Hawes Cllr Blackie refused to see banking services disappear from the dale. His latest success, only one week before his death, was to secure a commitment to retain banking services in the Upper Wensleydale Community Office through a ground-breaking partnership with the Newcastle Building Society.
“Cllr Blackie leaves a formidable legacy” said Richard Flinton. “John was a critical friend and a seasoned campaigner and he was not afraid to rock the boat and make life difficult for those in power. But at all times his overriding interest was the good of his deeply rural communities and the continuation and development of effective services.
“When austerity came along he rolled up his sleeves and worked with us to find new, better and more cost-effective ways of delivering services. He worked tirelessly, despite prolonged ill-health. Our job now is to make sure that we continue to develop this work with the communities that John so dearly loved.”