Friday, 18 November 2011

Is the Prudhoe Town Centre redevelopment abandoned and if so Why?

A month ago the Prudhoe Town Centre redevelopment scheme looked all set to receive its planning permission after years of twists and turns. About a day beforehand, the meeting was cancelled. Since then something of a catch all about legal advice and the applicant being required to submit more information has sufficed by way of explanation. I have asked councillors, the chairman of the Prudhoe Community Partnership who is also the vicar, for explanations. Nothing in any detail is forthcoming. The Hexham Courant has hardly been able to expand the knowledge base. This week its publishes two letters from opposing sides of the spectrum: Peter Gallagher and Tony Williamson. Sometimes people wonder why I don't get more involved in the actual political structures. Read those letters for an answer. It is mudslinging and misunderstanding on both sides and that is not something I wish to take part in. Nonetheless this inability to communicate between the various parties may go far in explaining why this process has become so frustrating over many years. The process goes back some years before the original application for the current scheme was submitted in 2007. Now in bullet point form, I intend to list out some of the reasons why I suspect if the current scheme is dead, that is so. Tony Williamson's letter (pro) seemed to suggest it is dead although on what evidence I do not know. Perhaps the results of the Sainsbury consultation this September were so negative as to disincentivise them?

  • At the outset the scheme should have had a vision and a name. One that encapsulated the excitement of what was on offer. I have several times in this blog referred to The Hanging Gardens of Prudhoe. This was not a random choice and only incidentally was meant to allude to a fate for the protagonists. The Hanging Gardens concept is one of antiquity and refers to the hillside. The space for the development is the last open space left within Prudhoe's centre. It sits on one of Prudhoe's greatest assets: its hillside. The development owner is famed for the Alnwick Garden. It is basic common sense that the two be combined and that above everything else encompassing the shops and the houses, there would be a Garden experience of such notability that it made Prudhoe a destination. A multi storey car park or a Supermarket facade could have become an exercise in hydroponics. People with memories in Prudhoe realise that the Co-Op development and its car park destroyed a very pleasant park.
  • As such the scheme needed to be 21st century in nature. I often asked those for the scheme to outline for me its 21st century elements. They never have because it is'nt. It is a scheme from the 1980s. And it never really took cognisance of its hillside location. The hillside became a problem not an asset. And that is how we ended up with Berlin Walls, sound barriers and massive blocks of development overlooking houses.
  • An element of a 21st century scheme would have been efficient communication to sell the project. A regularly maintained website with an updated FAQ responsive to questions could have worked wonders. The site is surrounded by houses and the proposed development literally looks down on many. Pleasing the neighbours should always have been paramount to remove objections. IT could have helped this, instead the developers seemed to stir up a hornet's nest amongst their intended neighbours.
  • The information provision was always poor. Dumping huge arrays of files in the library and calling that consultation was anything but. Again a website could have had a 3d walkthrough, which, had the plan had inherent excitement, could have convinced the doubters. It simply did not seem that Northumberland Estates ever wanted to enthuse the community. It looked as if they took them for granted. It certainly did when as this blog shows the Estate has spent months claiming on its own website to have planning permission for the project when it had nothing of the sort. A public consulation inviting responses took place in August/September of this year and not a word about the results has yet been forthcoming.
  • Four elements of detail (at least) excited consistent adverse comment (other commentators may suggest more). The big three for me were the multi storey car park, the restrictive covenants on the shops and the new junction on station bank. Each of these three it seemed to me was unwelcome and unworkable. Probably the one highest on my agenda and those I spoke to, were the restrictive covenants. It looked like swopping one supermarket monopoly for another. The knowledge that at the end of all the upheaval, a whole genre of shops would be excluded like a butchers, wholefood (Holland and Barratt), a Thorntons, a fishmonger was amazing. Just what sort of town centre was this going to be for the largest town in Tynedale?
  • The fourth element really became evident this summer and perhaps it was this that pulled the meeting on the 19th October? The situation with the drains and the sewers. I have heard so many incompatible versions of this. One argument says that the development was actually going to solve the problem because it was to have a separate drainage system to the river. If so that was not made clear in Fairhurst's summary handed out in October 2010. Another argument says that the Estate maintained there was no springwater on the site when clearly there is. What appears to have driven the point home was the event of 6th August when it became manifestly clear that Prudhoe's current drainage system was not working. The simple point to me is that Prudhoe operates with a 600' hydraulic head and that unless development is exactingly married to that fact, some dramatic problems will arise.
  • It is evident that the matter of leadership and trust comes into this. Whether in respect of the springwater or their claim to already have planning permission, the Estate lost the community's confidence. The Duke never once came the 3o miles to engage with the population. The whole affair of the Judicial Review articulated this. The proposal was rejected once by a judge and although it could be argued this was on a technicality, commentators like the Hexham Courant certainly interpreted this as a rebuff to the Estate's plan which had already then attracted thousands of objectors. I certainly thought that when the plans were represented at a consultation in St Mary's Parish Hall in October 2010, one would see a radically changed scheme taking account of the many concerns which by then were well known. I remember being amazed by what I saw and I remember the inescapable mood of those in that room. They were angry. More than anything else, this was the moment I decided to start quietly taking soundings amongst people as I met them. Gradually over several months, I became astonished at what I learnt. Very successful business people were explaining to me exactly why the proposed scheme would not work. Other people were expressing amazement that successful businesses like the existing snooker hall were going to be sacrificed with no arrangements for their replacement. I was very surprised to discover that this did not seem to concern the Prudhoe Community Partnership.
  • A very sad consequence of all of this as the letters in the Courant have consistently shown is that the landowner's scheme has entirely divided the community. It is not difficult to find heated arguments developing over the affair. Neighbour can quite literally fall out with neighbour. Since the landowner in this instance is not some absent commercial entity but the feudal landlord, I judge that to be somewhat scandalous.
  • As Tony Williamson's letter says, the land will be developed. It cannot be left. If indeed the Northumberland Estates/Sainsbury scheme is dead, how might I suggest going forward? The asset of the land and its view is so valuable to the community that the Prudhoe Community Partnership should raise funds to buy the land and find a new development partner. One who would really work with this community to develop a scheme which would enthuse the community. Perhaps the result will not be a Sainsbury? It might be a Morrisons or an Aldi. I don't mind. I never objected to a new supermarket. The Co-Op as I repeatedly say to myself when forced into it, has not made any friends by its pricing or stocking policy (Consett offers a vastly wider array of supermarkets and other food outlets all competitively priced). So by all means lets have a new supermarket, some more housing, shops that allow for a butchers, but in all that let us make sure that the development treats the hillside in such an exciting manner that it will become the positive talk for 50 miles around.


robertatforsythe said...

One person who should know something has been in touch having read this and assured me that the application will be back with the planners in the New Year.

Unknown said...

Hi Robert - I wouldn't take the opinions of a guy who lives in London and an ex Town Councillor. Neither have any more idea about the development than a man on the street. This planning process is very frustrating but my understanding is that legal counsel advised that the thoroughness of Northumberland estates documentation was not total so the planning committee would have no choice but to reject it. So the application has not been withdrawn but the meeting has been postponed. I cannot see this application being scrapped, the duke has invested too much to stop. So my expectation is that an unchanged application, with a few more t's crossed and i's dotted, will be before the Council in the new year. Many of your ideas are nice but the council or the partnership cannot compulsory purchase the site and what is submitted is really in the hands of Northumberland Estates. That might seem unfair but unfortunately Northumberland still has a lot of the legacies of feudalism!

robertatforsythe said...

Neil: I am grateful for the time you have taken to comment. We may not be in complete agreement but your willingness to set out the position is to be applauded.

robertatforsythe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robertatforsythe said...

If you follow this public link you can get a flavour of the comments made about the application in the August/September 2011 period to the county council

robertatforsythe said...

Last Friday's (9th December) Hexham Courant page 3 bottom does have a short piece endeavouring to explain why the planning meeting onn October19th was cancelled. Frankly I don't think I am any of the wiser. No specific meeting of any of the Drains, Co-Op and Morrison's (Blaydon) legal objections were made but all of these informants have suggested have a role to play.

robertatforsythe said...

In the rush of Christmas an update has been missed although it was made on my Facebook album commenting on the project. There on the 23rd December I noted "Just over two months after the Prudhoe Town Centre application was pulled the Courant front page and editorial today discuss what they believe brought things to a halt. Detailed and renewed objections from the Co-Op. Not the drains and sewers (Clochemerle) which have also taken our time this autumn. Courant phraseology embraces "failed process" and "beggars belief" and firmly finger wags at both the County Council and the Northumberland Estates. Like many others I am sure, I have no idea how this will end but I do know Prudhoe deserved the preparation of a really excellent scheme from its landlord."