Creating a shared vision for Penrith

Date: Tuesday 22nd May 2018

An open letter to the leader of Eden District Council

Sir, Jeremy Heywood, head of the UK Civil Service, is very much in favour of bringing together groups of experts to create good policy for the country.

He’s a firm supporter of a team within the Cabinet Office that I have been working with and advising for the past year, which aims to connect leading academics to policy makers.

The reason for this is simple — even the best policy makers do not have all the answers, or all the knowledge, and when things really matter it’s essential that they are open to fresh ideas.

This may seem like a world distant from our own, here in Eden. But it is not. Right now the policies that will shape the entire social, economic and natural environment we live in for the next 50 years and more are being constructed.

The vision was published, the masterplan is being written, and if we are not careful these will become powerful, unstoppable documents. My offer to you, council leader, is to bring together some of the leading thinkers from Lancaster University and Cumbria University, together with local businesses and community groups, to help you make sure these policies are right for Penrith and Eden.

Why should we be concerned? Because in your own documents, on your website, it is made clear that you have little idea what the real drivers of economic growth and prosperity are for our district.

Your reports rely on national data, and then on county-level analysis of this data, that is skewed heavily by serious regional differences. Even leading economists, those who have advised prime ministers in the past, accept that their dark art struggles to be of value when trying to understand productivity growth in specific towns or regions.

We need to do some serious work to uncover the drivers of value here — I have some idea, as do some of my colleagues, and we want to share them, argue over them, and refine them until we have truly supported you in your community, business and academic engagement.

Your agents have been engaged in closed-door discussions at the Lowther Estate offices for some months. These discussions take the focus away from the economy and community you are serving, and shift it towards the needs of those few individuals — what land they want to develop, the road building and house building they might profit from.

Perhaps they believe that the empty shops in the failed development in the town will be filled if only we build some houses, but even this could be a myth: the Beacon-top new town may simply lead to more out-of-town shopping, away from the traffic and parking issues, and lead to further hollowing out of the market town of Penrith itself. Building houses does not necessarily build an economy or enhance a community.

I urge you to take time to build a robust model of what drives prosperity in Penrith and the wider district. We, as academics, are funded by the public and eager to serve that public when we can. The only cost of engaging with us is time, and it will take more time than a rubber-stamping six-week consultation in the summer.

Community trust was damaged by New Squares, and people need to believe that they have a voice, so let us work with you and the community to shape the vision, from the ground up instead of from the top down, as it seems to be now. Yours etc,

DR CHRIS FORD

(Cabinet Office Policy Fellow; academic adviser to the ICAEW Business and Management Faculty; academic adviser to the Institute for Outdoor Learning; Lancaster University Management School)

By email