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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Can Cumbria create another Eden?
By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Broughton Moor gate
The reception facilities may need a little more work

Since it opened three years ago, the Eden Project - a much-praised botanical theme park - is reckoned to have brought in 450m to the Cornish economy, and created some 2,500 jobs.

Little wonder, then, that local authorities around Britain are keen to sprinkle a little of the same fairy dust on their own regions.

But with development land in scarce supply, and the tourism business far from confident, serious opportunities have been few and far between.

Now, however, Allerdale Borough Council, in the far northwest corner of Cumbria, reckons it's about to hit paydirt.

Frozen in time

Allerdale's ambitions rest on a rhomboid patch of land known to most locals as "the Dump".

Since 1938, Broughton Moor - between Cockermouth and the ports of Workington and Maryport - has been off-limits to the public, used as an ammunition depot by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Cumbria map
Untouched by the plough or the property developer for 60 years, the moor was extraordinarily pristine, even displaying the marks of medieval strip-farming.

When the ministry started thinking about selling the 425-hectare site during the 1990s, Allerdale was worried, says David Martin, the borough's head of regeneration.

"The area is surrounded by open-cast mines; if the site had just been sold off, there's no doubt it would have ended up as just another mine.

"We thought we could do better."

Newts and bats

The MoD, after some lobbying, agreed; in principle, as long as Allerdale can come up with a workable plan for the site, and accepts any potential liabilities, it can take it on for a nominal 1.

And that's where the problems begin.

First, there is the labour of reclamation: although the MoD reckons to have left Broughton Moor free of explosives and other nastinesses, some 300-odd buildings need to be razed and the land put in order.

And because the Broughton Moor - like the Eden Project - wants to be as green as possible, Allerdale is taking extraordinary pains.

One field of rubble is having to be sorted by hand, so as not to disturb the great crested newts that have settled there. And the proliferation of protected bats on the site has trebled the reclamation job to three years; according to environmental regulations, only one-third of the bat colony can be disturbed at any one time.

To the wire

Which brings us to the second problem: funding.

Broughton Moor
On a clear day, you can see the development potential
Thanks to the sensitivities of Broughton's bats, the reclamation work alone is projected to cost 25.5m.

About 10% of that money is coming from a range of lenders, including the European Union; the bulk, meanwhile, is awaited from the Northwest Development Agency (NWDA).

The agency is keeping Allerdale on tenterhooks, says Anne-Marie Cowperthwaite, who coordinates the project on behalf of West Lakes Renaissance, the local development agency.

Approval has been slow in coming, partly because of the convoluted chain of command, and partly because the NWDA has taken on a heavy caseload.

Nevertheless, Ms Cowperthwaite insists, the financing could well be granted by the end of this year.

Aiming high

The 25.5m, if it comes, will leave Broughton Moor looking neat and tidy, and with a visitors' centre and access road - a pretty bog-standard forest park that David Martin reckons could attract 100,000-150,000 people a year.

Projection of visitors' centre
Even Allerdale's basic model is three years in the future
But Allerdale is aiming far higher than that.

"We don't just want to create something parochial, but a nationally significant project - even a global destination," Mr Martin says.

The project's leaders are currently entertaining a dozen or so potential investment schemes for the moor, ranging from the predictable (a hotel and golf course) to the high-minded (an environmental university).

"Nothing is really being ruled out at this stage," Mr Martin says. "We have to accept that it's going to take us a long time to get where we're going to."

Too many cooks

This sort of talk is sparking unease among the local business community.

Viv Dodd, head of the Cumbrian Chamber of Commerce, says Broughton Moor is "a great opportunity" to bring jobs and investment to a depressed corner of the county, but is concerned about what he sees as a lack of focus in its management.

The Eden Project was largely the vision of one man, architect and record producer Tim Smit; Kingmoor Park, a landscaped business park near Carlisle reclaimed - like Broughton Moor - from defunct MoD land, was also driven by a long-sighted entrepreneur.

"In both those schemes, a very small team came up with the vision," says Mr Dodd. "That's what you need in a project like this."

Utropian ideals

Nigel Catterson wants to become Cumbria's Tim Smit.

Utropia mock-up
Utropia aims to tickle one's emotional triggers
Even before Allerdale made its move on Broughton Moor, the businessman was sketching out plans for an environmental theme park.

Mr Catterson's Utropia scheme is the only whole-site development currently on the table for Broughton Moor. At its heart is a visitor experience based around the elements of earth, air, fire and water - enhanced, Mr Catterson says - by an innovative system of "emotional triggers".

Utropia will also have a hotel, some sort of educational institution, and an eco-village of up to 100 houses.

The park, Mr Catterson reckons, could bring in as many as 1.5 million visitors a year - a feat that would vault it directly into the top 10 British tourist attractions. "Between 15 million and 25 million people come to the Lake District every year; it's not unrealistic to hope for a slice of that," he says.

Green dreams

Even if Utropia gets the go-ahead, the park's future is far from certain: the alchemy of tourism is impossible to predict, as a string of big-budget failures will attest.

Top tourist attractions
But the augurs look positive. Many of Broughton Moor's apparent handicaps - poor infrastructure, an impoverished hinterland - were just as true of the Eden Project, and proved no stumbling-block there.

The established tourism base of the Lake District, just half an hour down the road, is even more fruitful than Cornwall.

The Lake District, too, is famously short of wet-weather attractions: when it rains - which is often - most tourists are siphoned off to the dubious delights of the visitors' centre at Sellafield, a notorious nuclear plant.

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