Don’t settle for bland blueprint for Matlock

Future Development: The Bakewell Road development site in Matlock.
Future Development: The Bakewell Road development site in Matlock.

I write in response to the request for members of the public to offer comments on the Council’s proposals for the redevelopment of Bakewell Road in central Matlock.

I am a fully qualified planning and development lawyer in the UK with considerably experience of drafting SPDs and other planning policies on behalf of a range of local authorities.

I am also - perhaps uniquely, who know’s?! - an architect and graduate student finishing-up my masters degree here at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in downtown Los Angeles - some way I’ll admit, both culturally and in terms of scale, from Matlock and the Derwent Valley.

My locus standi in this case however stems from the fact that I did much of my growing-up in Matlock - on Church Street - and still have relatives living in the town - one of whom has asked that I write to you now.

I care passionately about the town’s future and obviously pay close attention to developments of all kinds in Matlock and Derbyshire generally - and as an architect, I have a keen interest in the issues around redevelopments such as those proposed at Bakewell Road.

The Council’s questionnaire asked for responses to the following questions:

(1) The SPD provides the planning framework for the Bakewell Road redevelopment scheme. What do you consider to be the essential components of a successful redevelopment scheme for Bakewell Road?

(2) Which key retailers would you like to see (not like to see) in Matlock.

(3) The Council’s aspiration is to secure a redevelopment scheme which accords fully with the SPD. However, given the difficult economic climate, what if it is not possible to secure a viable and deliverable redevelopment project which is wholly in accordance with the Supplementary Planning Documents – should the District Council continue to progress an alternative scheme or wait until such time that the Supplementary Planning Documents can be fully delivered, whatever timescale this may involve?

My responses to each in turn, are given below.

(1) The Council’s SPD aims far too low. It’s poorly drafted, lacking in fresh-thinking and horribly bland. The document reads as though it were drafted by a committee and lacks any sort of independence of vision. Given that SPDs such as this usually constitute a best-case-scenario from the public’s point of view - a starting point for negotiations with a given development partner - to aim so pitifully low in policy terms is simply to permit the construction of yet another woefully mediocre development - in turn entrenching the town’s longer term decline and preventing Matlock from being a place where residents and visitors are able to express and fulfill the full range of their needs and aspirations.

I’ll stick my neck-out and say that there isn’t a single post-war development in Matlock which doesn’t pale in comparison to the structures and institutions created during the valley’s Georgian and Victorian heyday.

It has long been part of the British mindset in places such as Matlock to accept a sort of bastardised, semi-regurgitated version of this Victoriana as a way of ‘paying homage’ to the prevailing architectural and historical legacy in a given settlement. Such anachronistic architectural reflux, in places such as the Derbyshire Dales, suffers additionally by it being constructed in some low-grade reconstituted stone, possibly as a consequence of some crass attempt to create ‘contextual’ development - and here we’re in true Prince Charles territory - but which more-often-than-not serves only to draw ones attention to the numbing mediocrity of the new.

It’s my view that the true legacy of the Georgian and Victorian periods lies not in some soft-focus Tesco-Town Victoriana (the most awful recent example of which in Matlock is the Cawdor Quarry development - a truly terrible slice of mediocrity - and what’s worse it’s the main gateway to the town) but rather in a proper understanding of the iconoclastic innovation of the ‘Golden Age’ - mills and factories supplanting farmsteads and tumbledowns. Hydros and streetcars augmenting a place where previously there had been only a few cottages strung about a packhorse bridge.

It’s my contention, therefore, that the Council needs a new SPD, one which fully embraces a discussion about just how radically Matlock can rethink its future.

The new SPD should set out a partial vision - one that is particular, enlivening, challenging, arguable and ultimately subjected to a popular vote.

The SPD should raise the possibly of institution building - because without new institutions, developments of the type currently proposed at Bakewell Road will only ever devolve into a discussion of the merits of this supermarket over that. Clearly the middle classes will always desire a Waitrose or a Marks and Spencer. But really, the Council’s aspirations for a cultural, architectural and public discourse on the future of the town-centre should aim its sights a little higher than a debate over where one might purchase the most diverse range of fresh pesto.

The Council should consider partnering with an existing innovative cultural institution to deliver a mixed-used development of greater ambition than a small scale local developer with no track record of producing desirable or interesting work.

Does Matlock want to be Beacon, NY or Bayreuth. Margate or Hay-on-Wye?

Or something completely different?

I suggest that the Council assemble a team of innovative, talented designers to work on revised proposals.

The new SPD could initially take the form or a large scale model, 3D printed in public in a vacant shop or other unit in the centre of Matlock over the course of a single week or month - maybe as part of an inaugural ‘Matlock Architecture Month’!

I’d be more than willing to assist at no cost. I’m sure others would too. This model could then be the starting point for a series of discussions with theatre and cinema companies, local food producers and farm shops, local clothing manufacturers, innovative housing providers and yes, supermarkets, leading to the evolution of the proposals into something genuinely capable of causing people to sit-up and rethink what Matlock might become in thirty years.

(2) I have no view - other than to suggest that it would rather nice to celebrate Derbyshire’s produce in any retail offer forming part of the development.

(3) This last question presents us with a false dichotomy. The economic climate wouldn’t prevent a decent development from going ahead - the only thing preventing it is a lack of vision and a dearth of aspiration.

I appreciate the time taken to read this letter and consider it contents.

I’d love to assist the Council further with its preparations for a step-change in Matlock’s town-centre - and am happy to provide further details of my work to date if needed.

Benjamin Farnsworth

Los Angeles