"Write me two paragraphs outlining the 21st century nature of the Duke of Northumberland's intended revelopment of Prudhoe town centre"
"We'll demolish one small monstrosity and replace it with a huge one"
"That looks like something out of the 1970s"
"Landlordism at its worst"
"Where's the hanging gardens of Prudhoe?"
"Is that a car park I see from 10 miles away?"
"That's a nice traffic jam on Station Bank and its not even snowing"
"Where's the butchers?"
"Is this a hard or soft development?"
"Do you travel from Prudhoe to shop in Blaydon shopping precinct?"
"A smaller town centre which thrives is better than a larger one that does not"
"At long last Prudhoe is going to get something Hexham has'nt: a multi storey car park"
For perhaps half of our 20 years in Prudhoe, the issue of Prudhoe town centre has bubbled on. Maybe it is longer. Because at heart I am not a controversalist, I have kept my head down on this issue. On Friday 22nd October 2010, something happened which broke that.
Myself, my wife and a good friend attended a presentation about the Duke's plans. This was in the light of a Judicial Review having quashed the County Council's granting of planning permission previously. What I saw at this presentation left me dumbstruck. I could not conceive that after so much process, a landowner could ignore so much complaint and offer a project that was so unimaginative and behind the times.
So now we try to explain. The one liners above are good debating points and we would defend each. It is sad if some sound negative and personal but my understanding is that the Duke, the landowner, has never personally put himself before the people of Prudhoe in an attempt to create a project that delivered across the spread of agendas. His solution has been consistently impositional rather than inspirational and consensual. And therein lies the Problem.
Some folk have thought our comparison with Blaydon a bit mean. Actually we do go to Blaydon, they sell some nice cheap vegetables there but we don't go for the destination experience. It is very clear that the shopping precinct there has drained life from the old Front Street whilst at the same time, the rate of unit turnover within shows it struggles with its own economies.
It ought to have been straightforward for a family with the wealth of the Duke of Northumberland and with the track record of Alnwick Garden to come up with the creativity, that when offered a prime hillside location in a beautiful valley, the resulting proposal wowed the mind and delighted the senses. A car park could have become a leading piece of vertical gardening or farming which brought people hundreds of miles to Prudhoe to see the result. A landmark which made every traveller on the A69 turn for the colour of the planting rising into the sky.
But throughout the whole torrid process that is the Prudhoe redevelopment, this connectivity between the talents that the Percy family evidently have and those charged with exciting the citizens of Prudhoe has been signally absent. Instead it looks as if the assumption is: that so long as there is a Sainsbury (which I would welcome), then that will please those who live in Prudhoe. We who live here are not people with aspirations, we will take what we are given and be grateful. Yet the reaction of the folk of Prudhoe has shown how wrong that assumption is.
Aside from the failure of the grand vision, it seems listening to the people at the presentation that there are plenty of serious everyday concerns. They have been heard before: how will Station Bank function. The paperwork handed out offered a bland assurance that there is no problem. There's the drains and the inhabitants of Castlefield. There are plenty of other issues but what personally gets me is the subtlety of the language of the information sheet I was handed. It offered a mix of non-food and food units. It did not make clear that THE food unit is Sainsbury and as I understand what I have read, if I asked to open a butcher in one of the other units, I would be shown the door.
The lack of a butcher in Prudhoe shows the tragedy of all this. We live in one of the most meaty counties in England. There are wonderful butchers in Hexham, Corbridge, Brampton and in farms not so far away from Prudhoe - if you have a car. Yet for about 18 years I think, the only butcher meat vended in a town of 12,000 has come from the Co-Op. We regularly buy our meat in Galloway, or from Wishart of Greenside, whose van we have persuaded to reach Lime Grove.
The Duke of Northumberland wields perhaps the balance of power in Prudhoe and above all else it is sad that there is such a disjunction between what the town really needs and what its owner thinks is good for it. What is the way forward?
A range of routes are possible. The Duke could recognise that his impositional solution to the Town Centre is extremely unpopular in this community. At the far extreme,the entire project could be withdrawn voluntarily and the land offered at market value to Prudhoe Community Partnership. The PCP would then fundraise to buy the land and then as a proper community venture the redevelopment should be planned to properly reflect the aspirations of those who live in the community.
Another solution would be for the Duke to withdraw wholly the present scheme and restart with something like these thoughts in mind. These start with Page 7 of Friday 22nd October 2010's Hexham Courant which should be looked at. Bardon Mill's planned village hall. How exciting, contemporary and how green can you go? And designed by a North East Architect. Why has not this been the style for a new development proposed for this hillside here? Why are we building up brick and concrete structures high on a hillside looking down on new estates and visible for miles? We have a sloping hillside so why are we not building into it. Why does'nt the facade of all the development look out to the north in a series of terraces? Why is'nt the car parking underground at the south side of the development?
Town centre developments have been done like this. Edinburgh Tourist Office is in one. Here's another
Norwich Castle Mall put underground right beside Norwich Castle. It could hardly have been a more sensitive sight.
So let's entirely rethink the whole Town Centre proposal. Let's only have one storey max above ground, let's get the vehicles underground from an access/exit on Front Street (down one access, up the next), and let's have nothing on Station Bank. Let's excavate large holes (Thompson's would be good for that) and then backfill them to create the spaces. Let's have a small one storey building area where the car park, legion and old dairy buidings are. Let them be traditional in feel. There's a town square. Let there be escalator entrances leading underground from here, and perhaps a T shape on two levels is envisaged. The walkway is in the middle of the vertical element of the T and on the south inside face of the cross of the T. This T shaped development spreads down and across the hill. All you see from outside is glittering glass and vegetation. Each unit domestic, residential or offices faces east, west or north from the T. The whole is covered in grass or vegetation on top. It use solar panels and strives to be energy neutral. The storm drainage could be used to generate power. I wonder what the energy designs of the current project are?
There's the grand design for Prudhoe. And you call it the Hanging Gardens of Prudhoe and it puts Prudhoe on the map of Britain. The name is so important and another evidence regarding the failure of the current proposal. These have no grand vision despite the site and are entirely mediocre (cf Cramlington Towncentre from the same stable, but at least that is not visible for miles away presenting a car park jutting out of a hillside with side aspect brick facades reminscent of a jail). A key name for the project should have been there from the outset, controlling what was going to come, and exciting the community.
The reality of course is that landowners wield a huge amount of power. I am not anti-landowner but would wish anyone in that position to reckon with being a steward for what they have under the judgement of God. Pragmaticism realises that the community of Prudhoe has fought this very hard and unless prepared for more bitter struggle may have to compromise. There follow a series of bullet points inspired from the Environmental Statement. They include specific references to how the present development could be greened with what is already proposed:
Bullet points to show this:
1 That car park North Facade should be intensively presented with a soft face. This could be something like the B&Q gardens at Scotswood. It could be a community orchard terraced up the side of the car park. There is plenty of expertise available locally to advise on community orchards. Their proponents were at Hexham Farmer's Market on Satuday. (As currently planned, there must be every likelihood that this car park will become notorious as one the coldest and windiest multi stories in the UK).
2 It seemed to me most if not all of the structural facings are in brick? Have I got that right? Where is the variety? Throughout the development a range of facings could be employed. Faience, terracotta, tilling (where is the tiled Tyneside pub in this?), local stone, art deco, 1930's streamlining like the Belvedere Whitley Bay or a Burtons. A whole range of motifs are out there which if you promised them to the citizens of Prudhoe would show that something original was happening. Prudhoe is in fact a mix at present and my hunch is that people like that variety and mix.
3 It is not just requiring a variety of facings, but the softening agenda could also be futuristic. There is case for looking closely at how much hydroponical gardening or farming could be worked into all this, both the buildings and the retaining walls and sound barriers. Soft vegetation absorbs sound.
I know that new thinking comes with risk but if the objective is that Prudhoe becomes a destination, you link Alnwick Garden, hydroponics and this hillside here and you offer something really different. Something potential office renters will say ,we want to be in Prudhoe to be part of this. Otherwise Viscount Allendale's farm conversions for offices in neighbouring parishes are far more attractive and contemporary.
If Hydroponics is fresh to the reader here are some more urls:
and more at Gardening and the visual
(these ones really show what I could enjoy)
There is a heading in the ES about Ecology and that should be utterly full of the above. It is empty in the statement. It should be boasting about how the new development contributes.
4 Transport is green. I am not satisfied with the comments in the summary under Traffic and Transportation. It fascinates me to know when the studies were done on Prudhoe Station Bank. Yes at time it is quite quiet, at other times it is a disgrace to what motor vehicles do to a community. I cannot begin to see how at school times and peak hours and in poor weather Station Bank will not be a nightmare with this proposal. There is absolutely no mention of the bus services. Are the existing stops to be used? Will bus users walk to the development? Are there route diversions and new stops planned? Have Go Ahead North East and the public transport team at County Hall been consulted?
5 Finally to engage the community and to be 21st century, there should be a website on which all the plans are visible. The idea that a few hard copies of intimidating documentation are deposited in a library and that this is consultation is not acceptable nowadays. A website showing exactly how the proposal will sit in the landscape and allowing the viewer to virtually walk through the development should have been practical at any point since 2000.