Lakeland ‘under siege’ as Premier Inn threatens to spoil the view
For centuries the pretty town of Ambleside has attracted hikers and romantics drawn to its unspoiled streets of slate houses among Lakeland landscapes that once inspired Coleridge and Wordsworth. But local people fear their idyll may soon be shattered by a wave of new developments they say place the town under siege by threatening its independent character and homespun hospitality industry.
Already earmarked for a new Sainsbury’s superstore, Ambleside is now facing a new battle over plans by the budget chain Premier Inn to construct a 64-room hotel in one of the town’s oldest corners.
“The reaction has been one of pure anger,” said Russ Mills, a local artist who has designed album sleeves and multimedia work for Brian Eno, Japan and Nine Inch Nails. Mills has helped form Future Ambleside, a group of concerned residents and businesspeople dedicated to opposing the plans. If it gets the go-ahead, the Premier Inn will replace Hill Top, a boarded-up 19th-century building recently sold by the University of Cumbria, which operates a small campus near the north shores of Windermere. The new hotel would bring around 30 much-needed jobs to the region.
Opponents argue the hotel could be the death knell for local guest house owners who are already struggling in a tough economic climate. It would, they say, bleed cash from the community, destroy Ambleside’s “brand” and risk accidents on the Struggle – a steep, narrow street leading up to Hill Top.
There have also been accusations that the Lake District National Park Authority, which has yet to rule on the planning application, is ignoring concerns in its eagerness to attract corporate cash instead of encouraging investment in affordable housing or local business.
A second university building – Ambleside’s former Kelsick grammar school – has been sold to luxury property developer Springbourne Homes, which says it is planning a high-end 50-bedroom hotel, spa and culinary school that it hopes will attract involvement from Jamie Oliver.
The row over development comes two years before the Lake District National Park is put forward to become a World Heritage Site, a status that could put the brakes on future large construction projects. Mills, whose group has circulated a petition with close to 3,000 signatures, claims Hill Top has historic importance, being a former school once attended by Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, the daughters of the Romantic poets who are still the region’s most celebrated figures.
The campaign has attracted support from another famous Lakeland son, Melvyn Bragg, who wrote to one opponent saying he couldn’t “see anything to be said in its favour”.
At a recent event in Cumbria, the former CBI chief and TV “troubleshooter” Lord (Digby) Jones warned Lakeland authorities that the Premier Inn’s arrival would “dilute” the Ambleside brand.
“We would undoubtedly be put out of business,” said Fiona Haworth, who has run the Chapel House bed and breakfast opposite Hill Top for 10 years. “You’re looking at increasing the bed stock in Ambleside by 25%, which would wipe out the little people.
“The town is under siege. We’re becoming a cash cow for the corporations and the local authorities. Everybody wants a piece of the action, but no one’s giving anything back.”
Haworth’s comments are echoed by other guest-house owners. “The area attracts a lot of visitors, especially overseas visitors because of the nature of culture, which is quirky,” said Tony Blaney, chairman of the Lakes Hospitality Association. “In an environment like here, a city brand like Premier doesn’t fit.”
There are claims that, in selling to planned hotel developments, the university is ignoring the needs of a community starved of affordable homes for locals. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem MP whose constituency contains Ambleside, said the university had an obligation to the town to sell to a local housing trust.
“This application also reminds us that communities affected by national park authority decisions should be entitled to have their say over how those decisions are made,” Farron said. “It’s time that our national parks were democratically elected.”
Lake District National Park planner Ben Long said that, while the outcome of the planning applications would not be decided until autumn, low-cost housing had been ruled out for the Hill Top site. He said a hotel would fit the authority’s strategy of encouraging new tourist developments within towns rather than rural areas with few facilities.
Kate McLaughlin-Flynn, the University of Cumbria’s director of finance, said Hill Top’s buyer, a development group that intends to lease to Premier Inn, was the only firm bidder. “The university is a charity and we needed to get the best receipts we can in order to meet our charitable objectives,” she said.
Meanwhile, Premier Inn said it was taking concerns of residents into consideration. “We believe the proposed hotel will benefit Ambleside by diversifying the range of accommodation on offer,” a spokesman said.
Richard Greenwood, head of operations at Cumbria Tourism, said his organisation would welcome a Premier Inn as a chance to bring jobs and skills and open up the area to new markets. “There is capacity in the Lake District for new hotels,” he said.