Penrith can’t be allowed to degenerate into a generic sprawl

Date: Tuesday 9th October 2018

Sir, I would like to thank Mr Slack, Brougham Castle, Brougham, for his letter (Herald, 29th September) and I am more than happy to share my position regarding the Penrith masterplan.

It is important to open by saying that planning is fundamentally and constitutionally a subject for the district council, not the Westminster Parliament. I feel this is an important principle since it devolves power down to the most local level — and allows voters to engage directly locally with councillors about their built environment.

This means that I will not be “lobbying” in one direction or another. I am convinced that the council is working hard for Eden and is trying to provide for future economic growth, and bring positive change. The development is a sincere attempt to bring better livelihoods, and quality of life to the residents of Eden, and to take advantage of the A66 dualling.

But I am happy to share some of my reflections and the questions I would be posing. In particular, my instinct is that we must be very careful to avoid the mistakes of developments elsewhere in the country.

1) I feel that any development must emerge from a serious analysis of the lives, and needs of the residents of Penrith and Eden (their incomes, their environment, and their quality of life).

We need to be very clear what the purpose of the development is. If the aim is to attract more businesses, paying higher wages, to the town we should ensure that the development is well designed for that objective.

We need to map what jobs and opportunities currently exist for them in Penrith. And which well-paid specialised jobs are already emerging in the Penrith area (many with micro-businesses), and how these firms are likely to grow organically over the next decade. And it is vital that the development goes along with a renewed focus on skills, technology, broadband infrastructure, rates and product and market development.

2) Consideration should be given to what the appropriate scale or size of this development should be relative to the existing population of Penrith.

This must be backed by serious analysis or research of the anticipated demographics in this housing (how many of these houses do we expect to be bought by working-age people — and what is the evidence base?); or of the effect of the additional people in those houses on services, on wages, or on unemployment, or on quality of life for the existing residents.

3) Perhaps most importantly I feel that this project must be built in a way that is respectful of the history of Penrith, its existing urban plan, its architecture, its vernacular traditions, or its culture.

This should involve serious planners and thinkers — to come up with a serious plan for Penrith, shaped by the character of the town and the interests of the residents — conducted in a much more rigorous and detailed fashion.

4) We can learn a great deal from other market town developments. Some places have managed sensitive development with notable success in the south west of England. But it has also happened closer to home — Melrose in the Scottish borders, for example, and to a lesser extent Cockermouth or, in the last two years, in a smaller way, Brampton in Cumbria.

5) The absolute key in every case to success seems to me to be to preserve the character of the market town — or its “unique selling point”. And to prevent it from degenerating into a generic sprawl, eroding its value proposition.

All policy should be designed to ensure that it becomes an increasingly unique, attractive, well-designed and welcoming space, in which people wish to spend their leisure time. Yours etc,

RORY STEWART

(MP for Penrith and the Border)

By email