For the last six months of this year I lived in Penrith in north Cumbria. The word usually used to describe the town is ‘remote’. It isn’t; it’s one of the most accessible places in England. It sits on the edge of the M6 and regular trains stop en route to London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham.
Yet the image of Penrith as a sleepy backwater is not only accepted by the local people, it is heartily endorsed. Outsiders (‘off-comers’) are regarded warily and progress is viewed with suspicion.
As soon as I moved to the area, I set about looking for news items to write up for the national media. It didn’t look promising. The local paper, The Herald, focuses heavily on reports from the magistrates’ court, giving the impression that this peaceable place is a hotbed of street crime.
Matters improved when I made contact with Linda Mellor, a superb photographer (http://tinyurl.com/kl62cu) who is also in charge of the hyperlocal website (www.penrithlocal.co.uk). Linda featured me in her ‘Cumbrian Man’ gallery and together we covered the opening of a chic new hotel and bar, The Lounge; the appearance of Booker-nominated author Sarah Hall at Penrith library; and local concern at the plans for a huge new Sainsbury’s in the centre of the town.
It is this last item which is most worthy of national attention – a cautionary tale of how not to do town planning. The full history is too tortuous to detail here but in brief summary, the debacle began 13 years ago, when an area around Southend Road was identified as suitable for retail development. In 1999 the local council approved the first planning brief for the site. In 2003 a firm called Lowther -Minnelli was appointed as the preferred developer. The Lowther family is the largest landowner in the Lake District.
Discussions over the scheme dragged on and a final agreement was not reached until June 2008. Lowther –Minnelli’s contract was terminated in four months later when the National Australia Bank withdrew its funding. Sainsbury stepped in to offer funding for the development with the proviso that it be allowed to build either a 78,000 or 90,000 sq ft superstore. The council undertook a public consultation on Sainsbury’s proposals which demonstrated that public opinion was split down the middle. Councillors have now recommended that the proposal be put back out to tender prompting an angry reaction from Sainsbury’s. The fiasco is estimated to cost the Eden District Council more than £6 million.
I left Penrith to return to live in Brighton at the start of this month. Of course, as soon as I shipped out I missed the most dramatic event to occur in the town all year when the local Morrison’s went up in flames. The group has promised to build a bigger and better supermarket in its place. Whether Denis Van Outen, Richard Hamilton and Alan Hansen will put in an appearance remains to be seen.