We should ‘try living in the real world’, said our detractor, via the Letters page of the Cockermouth Times and Star, winding up for his punchline.
‘In a city!’
Clearly it was heart-felt. And aimed full square at me and my co-contributor of many a letter to our local paper, regarding our on-going concerns about the sprawling over-development of my adopted ‘home’ town.
Talk about red rag and bull.
But – none of this knee-jerk, heat of the moment stuff you get online – the weekly nature of this particular letters page afforded us time to respond. The right to reply with crafted measure. Albeit equal passion.
Maybe he didn’t want a response, thinking his city-dwelling rebuke sufficient to silence this grumbling pair of locals, too busy contemplating the fluff in our own belly buttons to appreciate how damned lucky we are. But off went my response anyway.
Things is, as anyone downwind of my Manchester accent will immediately suss, I have indeed ‘tried’ living in the city. From birth, through school, college and a long, uninterrupted working life.
Coincidentally, unbeknown to us until four years ago, my co-contributor and I grew up a lengthy stone’s throw from each other, in what was then the Lancashire town of Eccles, on the edge of Salford, now swallowed up by Greater Manchester.
A ‘town’ Eccles may have been but at its heart were artisan local shops, a strong sense of community and a centre generally referred to colloquially as ‘the village’. Not unlike Cockermouth, then.
During our 1960s childhoods, we saw that community sliced irretrievably in two by the M602 (ironically, part of the ‘Eccles bypass’), thanks to the collaborative efforts of Eccles Borough Council and County Highways. Meanwhile, a new ‘modern’ shopping centre (a triumph of concrete) and a multi-story car park (rarely used except by local hoodlums) rose up close by. Between them, these ‘improvement’ projects destroyed homes and livelihoods, and ripped the soul from our home town.
Chris Orr moved to Cockermouth over forty years ago to work and raise a family so knows very well how rapidly the town has changed, increasingly so over the last few years.
I moved here five years ago (hence an ‘offcomer’). Prior to that, home for the previous twenty years was within earshot of both the M60 and the A580, a mile from the notorious Junction 13, and across the moss from Barton airport. So not entirely unfamiliar with air pollution, asthma, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, filth and noise and spiralling crime rates, including the daily threat of household burglary and car crime (appreciated at first hand on more than one occasion over the years).
Given a lifetime of travel into and around Manchester, both on business and socially, I am entirely familiar with the disruption during the seemingly endless ‘smart’ development of the M60, stifling traffic congestion, urban road works, dirty streets, perpetual housing and commercial development, and the eye-watering cost of city centre parking.
Not one of our small band of campaigners (a colourful mix of indigenous Cumbrians and offcomers) is against change per se. It’s unsustainable change that worries us and we share our concerns in the local media, in the hope of rallying like-minded people because that’s the best platform we have.
David Roberts says he ‘would swap his life’ for ours ‘in a heart beat’. At different times, that is precisely what we both did. We swapped our old lives for this and felt blessed relief that this beautiful corner of the world was so very different to the one we left, in so many respects – happier, healthier, cleaner, greener and (we thought) safe from avaricious developers. We do indeed ‘consider ourselves lucky’.
Which is why we feel so passionately that our borough councillors and planners, local highways wonks and profit-greedy developers seem set on turning Cockermouth into the sprawling housing development it is fast becoming, with all the attendant traffic, noise and air pollution that will bring – with the addition of town centre flood risk!
Should Mr Roberts one day see that heartbeat moment and swap his old life for a new version here in Cockermouth, he too may find himself passionate about those who seek to destroy it.
And like us, as an ex-city dweller, he will speak from hard experience.
Highways to Hell
And so to a town council meeting, two weeks ago, to hear Graeme Innes, from Cumbria County Council, and the positively somniferous Simon Sharp, Allerdale Borough Council’s new Planning Officer, explain their respective stances on the push to Phase Two by Story Homes despite fierce opposition.
The two principle objections to this development of 320 homes on the eastern, upstream edge of Cockermouth, have been flood risk to the town centre and the inability of the existing infrastructure to cope with the increase in traffic.
With regard to flooding, the developer – and indeed anyone with any power to actually DO anything – continues to read from their now extremely dog-eared script, assuring us that the development will not add to flood risk downstream. We say they cannot possibly know that their flood risk assessment is accurate, based as it is on zero data. But our remonstrations fall on deaf ears precisely because we cannot prove our case, without the data.
Yet, with that same lack of data, they reckon they CAN. Because. Well, they just can. Okay?
Then there’s the traffic, already feeling the effects of Phase One, daily bringing the town to a standstill and literally knocking lumps out of the listed buildings which line the narrower pinch points.
In December 2014, when planners saw fit to okay the scheme, Highways raised no objection. Based on a survey done, we suspect, in the middle of the night, in the depths of winter.
Our local council carried out their own traffic assessment, and expressed grave concerns, but its findings were rejected in favour of the developer’s.
Yet, three years on, their concerns and predicted outcomes are proving correct. So surely the Highways bods can now revisit their original recommendation and, at the very least, order a new traffic assessment? Er, no.
Even though this might be detrimental to the town, when even they acknowledge that the original assessment was flawed? Nope. Not even then.
What they might be able to do, says Mr Innes, is pop in a couple of mini roundabouts and another set of traffic lights – because those are already budgeted for under the planning conditions. As the majority of drivers here appear not to understand how a mini roundabout actually works (preferring to drive straight over the top) and the two existing sets of phased traffic lights serially fail to sync efficiently (thus making the traffic flow worse, not better), this suggestion was met with appreciable scorn.
Could the not-inconsiderable sum of money put aside for these ‘traffic measures’ not be used to commission a comprehensive traffic survey, asked the Mayor, David Malloy, perfectly reasonably. Er, no. Categorically not.
All written in stone, apparently.
And to top it all, that Local Plan our town council put so much faith in to protect us from future pain, is suddenly, quite probably, not worth the paper its written on, classed as ‘out of date’ by the government. The only means of having some measure of control over size, siting and suitability of any development for existing infrastructure, is to have in place an effective Neighbourhood Plan, which would ‘assume primacy’.
Oh dear. Wasn’t it our own councillors who kicked the idea for a neighbourhood plan firmly into the long grass, only last year? But clearly they too were misled over this.
So there’s really nothing you can do, Mr Sharp, to halt this second phase in its tracks? Er, no. Except for asking the developer to alter their site plan to accommodate two ancient trees rather than fell them. Failure to do so would definitely result in outright refusal until the developer capitulated and spared the trees.
We should be thankful for small mercies – and for the trees – but when is someone going to start looking after the people?
‘Our hands are tied’, they chirruped as one, ‘by central government’. Funny that, because every single letter we’ve had back from central government, from a variety of secretaries of state and ministers, lays responsibility for local planning decisions firmly at the feet of local planners.
If not for the seven or eight people who exited the building at the same time as me, similarly shell-shocked by what we’d just heard, I’d think maybe I’d strayed into some alternative, distinctly dystopian universe. Or that the whole thing was just a dream.
But let’s not discount the good news…
Given the general penchant for heel-digging, it was a surprise last week, when plans for a cut-price megastore on the edge of Cockermouth (to add to all the other cut-price outlets) were knocked back by brave Allerdale councillors, against strong advice from their own planning officers to approve it.
‘We need to be encouraging high quality employers providing good jobs, careers and opportunities, not shelf stacking and minimum wages,’ said Councillor Joan Ellis. Hear, bloody hear!
These are the same planning officers happy to throw up four and five-bedroomed ‘executive’ properties willy nilly – which, by definition, surely attract homeowners with a few bob in their bank accounts, a desire for well-remunerated employment prospects and a more discerning eye for the goods they buy. The same planning officers who argue the ‘need’ for more executive housing yet seem endlessly set on devaluing Cockermouth’s retail offering.
In another of those ‘studies’ whose provenance nobody ever quite fully understands (see traffic, flood risk assessment and ecology surveys), the officers had concluded that a B&M store couldn’t possible affect the vitality and viability of the ‘healthy’ town centre, which ‘should be able to build on its strengths as an attractive market town with a good range of independents, anchored by Sainsbury’s and with visitor trade.’
Odd then that in March, Cockermouth town councillor Alan Smith, who also happens to be leader of Allerdale Borough Council, was reported to say that ‘Cockermouth is dying’, adding that the town is ‘just about in receivership, on a life support machine and needs help and vitality.’
So which one is it: healthy or dying? Vital and vibrant or dead on its feet?
One town centre retailer objected on the grounds that the development threatened 20% of their turnover and, therefore, at least one employee and possibly the long term future of the business and the jobs of five people.
Another objector noted that the recent development of the Oakhurst filling station – also close to the A66 on the edge of the town and incorporating a Spar, a Greggs, a Subway and a drive-through Starbucks – had already affected footfall.
Ah, said officers, but this particular cut-price megastore would attract customers INTO the town centre. So, having parked free and filled their boots with cut price stuff, far from escaping to the A66 and beyond, they will join the daily traffic crawl through Cockermouth town centre, then pay a premium to park up, only to find the very same goods at higher prices? Silly me. Of course.
As for attracting tourism to rejuvenate the town, if my own visitors have been anything to go by, once they’ve ‘done’ Wordsworth House and possibly Jennings, taken a walk by the river, a jaw-dropping tour of the various flood level markers and the ‘history wall’ (complete with irritating typos), I suspect the majority of tourists would prefer a wander round all those artisan shops and the unlimited opportunities for tea and scones than a trip down the local discount store.
Aside from the beautiful views, it’s the retail sheds – the B&Ms of this world – that city-dwellers come here to escape from. Shame there are those amongst us who simply can’t see that.
And in this respect, I find myself completely in accord with Mr Roberts after all.