An outpouring of outrage greeted plans to install a set of aerial zip wires across the Lake District’s Thirlmere Reservoir – with a planning application for the £1.8m facility last week pulled at the eleventh hour.
Yet, more than just a planning battle over a Cumbrian beauty spot … the case of Treetop Trek is a posterchild of the challenges facing rural economies. It’s one that pits tourists against locals; walkers against thrill-seekers; and protectionists against futurists.
And it all comes down to a place of stunning natural beauty with an identity crisis.
Let’s put this issue of the Ministry of Defence raising planning concerns about the facility’s impact on fighter jets training in the area to one side (seemingly the ultimate factor in the decision to withdraw the application). What’s more interesting is how plans for the high-octane family attraction divided some of the prominent organisations with a vested interest in the Lake District’s success.
Business groups, Cumbria Tourism and the Business Task Force are all reported to have backed the concept – which it’s argued would deliver year-round family footfall and boost local spend. These arguments were balanced out by the likes of the Friends of the Lake District and Campaign for National Parks, arguing that such wholly inappropriate development would blast a zip-wire-shaped-hole in the area’s tranquil appeal.
There were rallies. There were petitions. There were objections.
It’s emblematic of the tall order facing rural economies … and the need for a unified identity to which everyone is working toward. Easier said than done for the region’s decision-makers, desperate for inward investment.
Many questions loom in the era of Brexit uncertainty. How great will the squeeze be on disposable income? What will the affect be on UK tourism? And how will communities heavily reliant on agriculture diversify their economy?
The answer probably rests on your opinion on whether a destination can be all things to all men (and women, and children). There’s a valid argument that says the proposed zip wire could bring in a whole subset of thrill-seekers and families who wouldn’t traditionally visit the Lake District, hopefully instilling a passion for the region’s natural wonders in generations to come. North Wales’ Snowdonia has spectacularly cornered this offer, from zip wires and cave trampolines, to mountain-biking and even simulated surfing set in and around the national park.
Yet, for passionate advocates of the Lake District’s exquisite landscapes, the thought of an irreparable scar on the environment (and the detraction against its identity as a quiet haven) was simply a bridge too far.
Such squabbles could be damaging for the regions’ brand. Businesses looking to bring their tourist attraction to the Lake District may think twice about the time, cost and reputational damage they could face and ultimately choose to go elsewhere.
As destination brands evolve, it’s vital that all audiences are taken on the journey and are bought into a common goal. Balancing varying viewpoints is a wire all parties have to walk, from applicants bringing forward new developments to the local authorities tasked with deciding their fate.
Combative progression is one option. Wouldn’t it be nice though if the various parties worked on a common identity. This might mean that plans for a diverse base of attractions don’t land with such a bump when they come zipping into town.
Written by Lewis Jones, Associate Partner, Newgate North