Sunday, 7 October 2018

penrith strategic disaster plan

Penrith is currently being roiled by a document put out by the local council under the title ‘The Penrith Strategic Masterplan’. I haven’t spoken to anyone who is in favour of this ludicrous proposal, and there is already organized opposition. So there should be! This preposterous ‘plan’ involves building more than 5,000 new houses in the most environmentally sensitive area of the town. The map below, taken from the glossy booklet that was published by Eden District Council last month, outlines the plan.

The three orange areas will be ‘new villages’, and the broken red line will be a major new road through the area. The broken blue lines are labelled ‘improvements to existing roads’. The problem is that between these developments and the rest of Penrith there is a low sandstone hill. The natural vegetation here would have been heathland (heather and bilberry), but for all my lifetime there has been a commercial forest (the green area southwest of the centre of the map). In fact, the hill has been exploited for timber since the nineteenth century, as the following photo indicates:

And this is what it looks like now, as viewed from Castle Park:

The hill is known locally as ‘Penrith Beacon’, ‘Beacon Pike’ or simply ‘the Beacon’. The name derives from the centuries-old practice of lighting a bonfire on the top of the hill to warn the locals that another raiding party of cattle rustlers and sundry other scoundrels was on its way from southern Scotland to pillage the area. This practice, in turn, is now commemorated by the Beacon Tower, built in 1719:

The tower used to stand proud years ago, but it isn’t easy to spot now that the trees have matured (I added a red arrow on the photo above to indicate its position). When I first moved away from Penrith to work, I used to look out for the Beacon and its tower from the train window every time I came back. It was a comfortable reassurance that I was ‘almost home’. I suspect that I would not be alone in this feeling.

And the area around the summit of the hill has always been openly accessible. When I was growing up, ‘going up the Beacon’ was an adventure. And when the season was right, we used to go there to pick bleaberries, as I imagine thousands of others have done over the years. I still remember that it seemed to take thousands of these tiny berries to make a full-size pasty. I did wonder whether children still see the Beacon in this way, given the myriad distractions afforded by modern technology, but I attended a rally yesterday organized by a newly formed pressure group, Friends of Penrith Beacon. A 14-year-old girl told the assembled crowd of several hundred about her encounters with deer and other wildlife, building a den and other things that I recall from my own childhood.

Here are some photographs that I took during the rally:

There were five separate rallying points, from where protesters would converge on the churchyard of the local parish church. The first photo shows the arrival of the contingent that set off from the start of the access path up the Beacon; the second shows Mr Iain Dawson, chairman of Friends of Penrith Beacon, who spoke eloquently of the many flaws in the plan; and the third is a general view of the crowd.

I don’t propose to analyse the masterplan in minute detail, but I will point out some obvious causes for concern. The first is the effect on wildlife. Most of the area around Penrith is farmland, which is a hostile environment for most wildlife, but the Beacon is much more biodiverse. In addition to roe deer, there are foxes, badgers and squirrels, not to mention snakes and lizards. This plan will not merely be disruptive; the present ecosystem will be almost totally destroyed.

My next concern is that with all the new development, there will be a huge increase in paved areas and thus more run-off in wet weather. I hear that the intention is for both drainage and sewage to be piped through the town’s existing systems, which will not be able to cope—they are already close to capacity—so the risk of flooding in the centre of Penrith is likely to increase.

Not mentioned at all in the current plan is the likely fate of Cowraik Quarry, another adventure playground for local children, which is located to the east of the Beacon itself. Cowraik is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) because of the excellent examples of dune bedding—Penrith sandstone is a desert sandstone—that are visible in some of the quarried faces.

It wasn’t until I looked closely at the map that I noticed two ‘roads’ through the forest that have been earmarked for ‘improvements’. These are not roads; they are forestry tracks! Improvements here will merely provide access to the most objectionable part of the proposed development, which I discuss next.

However, without doubt the most egregious proposal in the plan is indicated by the light green area on the map in the middle of the currently forested area. In the legend, this is identified as
Proposed Low Density Mixed Use Development Set Within Woodland Framework
In case you didn’t spot the verbal legerdemain being deployed here, this is simply code for ‘houses for rich people’. Presumably anything developed here will not be visible from Castle Park, but you won’t be able to avoid seeing whatever is built here if you go up the Beacon in the future. In fact, this development appears likely to encroach on what is and always has been (in my lifetime) a community resource: the open area around Beacon Tower.

I should say that having a strategic plan for the future is intrinsically a good idea. The booklet points out the steady decline in Penrith’s working-age population, which the council clearly hopes the masterplan will address. The booklet talks optimistically about attracting higher-paid jobs to Penrith but doesn’t say how this will be achieved. In fact, it may be impossible. There will always be opportunities for professionals—accountants, doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc.—but Penrith has and always has had a service economy. The masterplan discusses promoting Penrith as a regional distribution centre because of its transport links, but this doesn’t translate into ‘higher-paid jobs’. There are no high-tech industries here that might want to employ graduates. In fact, the only thing Penrith actually produces is scores of well-educated adolescents each year who go off to college or university and don’t come back. Of all the people who left Penrith to go to university from the local grammar school the same year I did, only two came back (I was able to work out a way to come back in 1989 after more than 20 years working in various places around the world). This is one of the reasons for the decline in the town’s working-age population, the other being that Penrith has become a popular location for people from other areas to retire to.

Quite apart from my rejection of this utterly crass plan on the grounds that I’ve outlined above, I foresee possibly decades of disruption in and around Penrith once construction begins in earnest. It must never be allowed to happen.

And I’ve avoided asking the most obvious question:

Who benefits?

Or, as Woodward and Bernstein were advised, follow the money.


  1. 'Masterplan'? I think we'll be the judge of that. Great piece, brilliantly done - I'll do what I can (not much) to share.

    1. Thanks for your comment Fin. It may be a local issue, but any support from outside is greatly appreciated. This is important not only to me but to all the people of Penrith.

  2. Well I do live there (here) and indeed have just come back from cycling up around the area, which I do pretty much every day. I'm not a great consumer of local media so encountering the march during my run on Saturday was the first I'd heard about it, though I'd been noticing posters in windows for the previous few days. Let's stop these buggers if we can. Presumably, as you suggest, it's all about a few people lining their pockets. On another top, do you have a list of answers to the quiz you set in another post, about the various carved inscription in and around the town?

    1. My apologies Fin. A wrong assumption. By the way, I may have encountered you out cycling, although I haven’t been out myself much lately. And you’re absolutely right. This disastrous masterplan must be stopped!

      On the subject of the stone carvings, I’d be happy to let you have a list of the locations, but I’m reluctant to post it here, because part of the reason for compiling the quiz in the first place was to encourage locals to look more closely at the town’s buildings, and they won’t do that if they know where to look.

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  4. I echo your sentiments that Penrith needs to address the flight of young people. I'm still on the fence with this proposal - possibly due to being unable to differentiate between fact and hyperbole. I completely understand the latter due to the passion people feel for the area - and that is a great thing to bear witness to - but it does have the effect of making it harder for me to form an opinion.

    You mention "the present ecosystem will be almost totally destroyed". Destroyed is a very strong term - is there a resource which explains in any detail why or how it would be almost totally destroyed? I agree this development will have a negative impact as all developments do (not that that excuses it by any means) but can't foresee why it would nearly destroy the eco system. I appreciate you have far more experience in this aspect of worldly affairs than I do.

    Many thanks for taking the time to educate us.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply Bryn. I talked about the ecosystem being destroyed, and it wasn’t deliberate hyperbole. What will happen is that there will be encroachment, and given the scale of these developments, that encroachment will be so extensive that the remnants of the ecosystem will no longer be viable. Of course, this isn’t fact; it is merely the assessment of someone with an extensive science background.


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