My visit to the North West region took me to a number of places lying on the ‘path less taken’ – and to one very well trodden.
Rochdale, Preston and Whitehaven – each a step further away from the metropolitan centres of the region (and from London) – share in one thing: the fervent desire of planners and councillors alike to see their places thrive and their centres renewed and regenerated.
Rochdale benefits from the strategic planning work of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the substantial funding that comes with the City Deal and its place in the Northern Powerhouse.
The GMCA strategy places Rochdale in the Northern Growth Corridor, a focus for economic investment as well as housing growth, intending the redirection of advanced manufacturing opportunities to the area.
Rochdale Council is proactive in delivering major regeneration of the town centre. The Council’s new One Riverside offices (picture) are already complete. Work is well advanced to complete the Riverside Centre, sitting alongside the Metrolink (tram) station and the re-exposed River Roch (it was previously culverted throughout the town centre). With the Rochdale Development Agency (owned by the Council) and investment through a Heritage Action Zone, work is well advanced to deliver the vision. There is no shortage of ambition.
An hour or so further away, Preston City Council has a similar level of aspiration for its city centre, combining new projects, such as the award-winning Preston Markets, with heritage conservation including the recently restored 1960’s bus station, the largest in Europe (I’m told). Work on the public realm outside the bus station continues apace.
Ian Tant with members of Preston City Council
The challenge for Preston, with a smaller budget than that available in Greater Manchester, is to prioritise its expenditure to greatest effect. By focusing on public realm works and grant aid in the retail centre, the City Council is seeking to lever in private investment. This can take time to arrive but there is huge confidence amongst the officers in their ability to deliver.
Continuing investment by the University of Central Lancashire is aiding regeneration, with work underway now to deliver a new student support building which will provide a vital landmark in the Friargate regeneration.
Further away is Whitehaven. Its seclusion on the coast, west of the Lakeland hills, has limited investment in the town for centuries. On the other hand, it has left us with a historic and cultural gem largely intact from the ravages of 20th century redevelopment that have so marked other towns and cities.
Pat Graham, Chief Executive of Copeland Borough Council and an RTPI Planner herself, proudly proclaims Whitehaven to be the pioneer of town planning.
The present town was created through the efforts of Sir John Lowther (1642 – 1706) who provided a master plan for the town with each plot of uniform width and each building three storey. The plots were sold for others to build on – “the first self-build community – and design code”. With its preeminent place in trade with America (Whitehaven was for a time the third busiest port in England), its grid system was exported there - and was reimported to the UK in the design of the Milton Keynes. It could be said that Whitehaven is the grandparent of Milton Keynes!
Today there is a substantial investment being made by “the nuclear family” (nearby Sellafield). A local development company, BEC, has been established (jointly by Copeland, Allerdale, and Cumbria County Councils and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) and is investing in the new North Shore development – a series of sites close to the harbour which will provide a hotel, retail, leisure and educational facilities.
The challenge is to ensure that everyone, not just those employed in the nuclear industry share equally in the planned economic prosperity. Delivering the developments should engender confidence in both the private sector and in the community, where it is much needed.
The Lake District
The final stop in my visit was to the Lake District National Park Authority. 2019 marks the 70th Anniversary of the National Parks Act. It was nothing short of a delight to visit the National Park I know best (growing up in Lancashire) and to see the newly opened Windermere Jetty Museum (picture) – a brave scheme with brave architecture. As 19.4 million people a year visit the Lakes, I’m sure you’ll all see it for yourselves soon enough! (I’ll say more about the National Parks, including the Lakes, in a future article.)
I could have called this piece “Love in a Cold Climate”. The climate is the economic one, with each place facing its unique challenges in austerity. But there is no doubting the love of the planners for their city, towns and National Park.
Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.