Secretary of State says ‘maybe’

Given that nuclear war hasn’t yet commenced, despite a further attempt to launch Mr Kim’s deadly KN-08, and that Orange Bloke just generally being one, this week I’m back focusing on Strawberry How. Well, if we’re not about to be nuked any time soon, may as well concern ourselves with pasture-pillaging property magnates closer to home.

And there we were again, last week, centre of the letters page. Thank you, Times and Star. There’s no better way to get your campaign to the wider community, because – as we have learned, this past couple of years – the process of local government is not designed to easily address and resolve the concerns of the community. Rather, it exists to absorb pressure, to diffuse difficulties and keep troublesome protestors perpetually at arm’s length.

And this will apply anywhere, not just here in sunny Cockermouth, where (thanks to a variety of councillors, both local and county), trees are biennially butchered to unsightly stumps and if a day passes without a three-way traffic light having been set up somewhere, clogging up the town, it’s a day wasted. (Just saying).

Take your concerns solely down the proscribed procedural route and – much like rising through the levels in your favourite computer game – their passage will be snagged and suffocated by time and red tape, and all manner of unexpected obstacles, in the hope (perhaps) that you’ll eventually get tired of fighting and simply fade away, exhausted.

So, yes, ‘take it to the paper’ is something of a mantra in this neck of the woods. Recently, on the letters page, for example, we had a gentleman inciting pedestrians on double-yellowed Station Street to rattle the cars of illegally parked ‘oiks’ with sticks (better just hope the oiks themselves aren’t in possession of sticks when you do this). Last week we had a correspondent lambasting Theresa May as being ‘all dress and no drawers’ (harsh and undeserved, IMHO). And the issues of traffic, roadworks, schools, hospitals, local and national government are regularly, heatedly aired, including our own thoughts about Strawberry How.

But I must admit it was disappointing to find the first four sentences of our recent letter edited out. This followed, I am led to believe, a consultation with Mr Ian Frost, the chief executive and Mr Alan Smith, the leader of Allerdale Borough Council, and presumably they didn’t like what we’d said in those four sentences, when all we’d actually done was report a conversation I had with our then MP, Sue Hayman, in which she, in turn, reported a meeting she’d had with the two gentlemen regarding the development at Strawberry How.

In itself, the Times and Star wielding their editorial scalpel isn’t unusual. I do it all the time in my day job, so I completely understand the need to beware repeating hearsay. In these days of fake news and nonsense, I’m relieved they routinely take the trouble to fact check, and frequently offer the right of reply or ask for more information.

But this time it niggled a bit because, by editing out those first four sentences, the context of our letter was effectively removed. It still made a good point but readers would be forgiven for wondering why were we making it. And who exactly is wielding this editorial scalpel – the editorial staff of the Times and Star (who I trust) or the council (I think you know where I stand on that one)? If it’s the latter, shouldn’t we be a little bit concerned? 

Let me explain. In February, aided once again by Sue Hayman, we approached the Secretary of State for a second time, regarding the revocation of planning permission for 320 houses across the road. You’ll recall we lost on our first attempt and Phase One has now reared up before us in all its faux-posh house glory. 

Fortunately for Story Homes, we’ve had one of the driest winters on record. But when it did rain, the water management measures put in place on site to absorb and filter surface water were full to bursting, spewing huge volumes of water and all manner of crap into the adjacent beck – a beck which is home to several families of otters (a protected species). See the wonderful captures on film by Peter Skillen, local photographer, artist and campaigner for wildlife.

Polluted water pours from the building site across the footpath and on to Tom Rudd Beck, after just three hours of rain in an exceptionally dry winter © Peter Skillen
In the area of the proposed bridge over the beck to Phase Two, the beck swells around the current site boundary with polluted water © Peter Skillen

Yet, despite the photographic evidence to support our case, councillors recently agreed to a change in the planning application which ensures that any excess surface water from the site will now go straight into the beck. At speed. Forget the SUDS ponds. Forget any wildlife which might suffer. Forget the flood risk to homes and businesses downtown. 

But I digress, as usual. In early April, I was delighted to receive a letter from Gavin Barwell MP, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, stating:

‘Officials are currently monitoring the application for when it proceeds to planning committee. If Allerdale Borough Council is minded to approve the application an assessment on call-in will be undertaken.’

The council clearly had wind of this, because it was announced at the planning meeting that the Secretary of State was thinking of ‘calling in’ the planning permission. Interviewed by the Times & Star, Jim Hully, who leads the campaign group Sustainable Cockermouth, called for a public enquiry. 

So far so good, until Mrs May announced a General Election. So, until 9 June, we have no MP to represent us. Literally anything could happen and everything is on hold. But whoever takes up the post of Secretary of State after 8 June, we intend to continue.

I understood, from my conversation with Sue, that there may be sympathy in the council leadership for our campaign. That if sufficient new evidence came forward they might be able to act. Though quite how much evidence they would deem sufficient, short of a devastating summer flood for Cockermouth or the complete and utter collapse of every highway through the town (a not unlikely scenario), is unclear.

So the point of our letter was to challenge Mr Frost and Mr Smith: Rather than hanging around for six weeks with the possibility of a government intervention hanging over their heads, why not themselves convene a public enquiry, independently chaired?

Such an enquiry might investigate, for example, the internal processes involved throughout the planning application and the relationships between Allerdale Borough Council and all the other parties involved in identifying this particular greenfield site.

It might look at the differences between the flood risk projection based on the Environment Agency data for Tom Rudd beck (data which still does not exist), the developer’s own flood risk model (based on this EA ‘data’), and the advice from Cumbria County Council at the time, compared with the actual experience of flooding both on site and in Cockermouth. In other words, the differences between what the ‘experts’ and the locals predicted.

It might examine the extra flood risk mitigation measures which have been deemed necessary by the developer since building began, over and above those initially detailed, and the environmental impact of these on the town and the indigenous wildlife.

It might even consider lessons learned.

Our two council leaders are clearly stuck in a quandary, caught between the constraints of government, the ‘do it now, ask forgiveness later’ attitude of those who would develop over every patch of this beautiful county, and the constant wingeing from the sidelines of their deeply concerned, perfectly erudite constituents.

But, if there is a willingness to look at new evidence rather than simply batting us away like so many pesky flies, why not come out and say so? Wouldn’t the community – not least the 875 who opposed the development in the first place (10% of the population) – wouldn’t they be happy to aid in the process of information identification, knowing there was some point to it all, some chance of being not just heard but listened to, for once?

Please be considerate…

It’s tickled my neighbour and I that, as the new houses become occupied, tiny wee signs sprout from their front lawns, asking passersby to ‘be considerate as these houses are now occupied’.

Maybe we should have done some little signs for our own front lawns when all this began. ‘Please be considerate as these houses are already occupied’.

I mean where do I start on the consideration shown to us by the developer and his minions? The perpetual rumbling and banging of contractors’ wagons and pile drivers while I’m trying to work, the infestation of flies when they ploughed up the cow pasture, the invasion of ravenous rabbits with a taste for newly planted roses when they destroyed their runs and burrows, the blocking of our communal driveway for days with deep-dug trenches and diggers, a road sweeper which daily spreads the mud around the road like chocolate on a cake rather than actually removing it, the substantially increased traffic past the house and the rapidly crumbling road surfaces in every direction, the never ending sets of laughingly titled ‘temporary’ traffic lights, the death and destruction of a 100-year-old hedgerow and the nesting birds within it, the general eye sore which the site continues to be (even the very expensive, newly-built bits)… stop me anytime…

View from our front lawn after the same rain storm. Hopefully, for the sake of the new homeowners across the way, the drains here have been repaired © Hackette on the How

Oiks aloud!

Speaking of parking oiks, I’m fascinated by the variations in definition of the meaning of the word. According to the OED, the term came into usage in the 1930s and refers to ‘an uncouth or obnoxious person’. Collins has it as ‘a person regarded as inferior because ignorant, ill-educated or lower-class’. The Cambridge Dictionary, more specifically, refers to ‘a rude and unpleasant man from a low social class’, but this is a little too gender specific, if you ask me.

For at 1.00pm on Friday, along with a line of eight people queuing for the NatWest cash machine on Station Street – which just happens to be adjacent to an official parking bay – I witnessed a quite spectacular display of oikishness. And, I am ashamed to say, it was a woman.

The first space of the bay was free and sizeable. Enter, a little faster than necessary, a silver Peugeot estate, which first attracted our gaze by  bumping noisily up across the kerb at the entrance to the bay, before straightening up with both near-side wheels nicely parallel on the pavement, a good 40cm in. Then – to our horror – the black Audi Q7 neatly parked in the middle of the bay actually jumped forward, firmly nudged from the rear by the Peugeot.

Having swiftly reversed, but still perched two wheels up on the pavement, the oik in question sat for several minutes behind the wheel, glaring out at her audience – in shame, defiance, fluster, hard to tell which – before climbing out and marching swiftly over the road and up to the Post Office.

The Audi appeared to survive unscathed but, in respect of double-yellow parkers on Station Street, I now wonder whether maybe – just maybe – they have a point?

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