Lakeland views clash over money, cars and countryside

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A car touring route proposed for the western fringe of the Lake District has run into trouble. The plan conflicts with wise words about curbing the motor car. But, as Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, reports, when jobs are at stake, green goals look like coming second.

One thing is certain. When the white-on-brown signs go up around Egremont they will not bear the legend bestowed on the unprepossessing little town by the comedian and folk singer Mike Harding. "Egremont - Gateway to Oblivia" was the title of a cruelly funny monologue about the post-industrial wasteland of the West Cumbrian coast.

Cut off by the Lakeland fells from the main transport arteries, it has always felt a place apart. Harding joked in the Seventies that anyone wearing a crash helmet was liable to be kicked to death by lads with long hair. "They think it's the Roundheads coming back."

But in truth the economy of West Cumbria needs all the visitors it can get. Iron and coal mines shut down long ago, leaving the area heavily dependent on British Nuclear Fuel's reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Even there, construction and other jobs have tailed off.

To tempt people away from the National Park, at least for a day trip, a 50-mile circular tour has been devised. If the scheme goes ahead as planned, 40 signs will guide tourists round the route and 12 more will mark and describe former mining towns and villages, such as Cleator Moor or Frizington.

This weekend was the deadline for public comments on the scheme which has already gained the cautious approval of Cumbria County Council's economy and environment committee. However, the decision to promote car touring in the face of government advice and the council's own policy has provoked protests.

In a strongly worded submission, the Friends of the Lake District said the proposal was "fundamentally in conflict with current thinking on sustainable tourism and transport". Nor is there likely to be much gain for the West Cumbrian economy, claim the Friends, pointing out that day trippers are "notoriously small spenders".

"In addition, many visitors currently come to West Cumbria because of its peace and tranquillity compared to the central Lakes. If further commercial tourism is encouraged, the qualities they seek will be destroyed."

But the conservationists' objections are rejected by the Cumbria Tourist Board and Copeland Borough Council, the body putting up most of the pounds 72,800 cost. Public transport is "practically non-existent" in the area and basic signing is needed in any case for some of the straggling settlements.

"Our aim as a council is to make sure there is the potential for employment," said John Hughes, economic development officer for Copeland. He knows that even on wet days hordes of motorists are not going to flock in from Keswick, but there could be enough to keep the heritage mine at Egremont and the attractions in the port of Whitehaven in business and providing jobs, along with a wool centre and sundry cafes and pubs. Some might even grow.

Councillors keen to promote development along the coastal strip often shake a metaphorical fist at the Friends of the Lake District and at the park authorities who try to preserve the western lakes as the quiet part of the national park. Even if the signing scheme goes ahead, there are doubts over some of the lay-bys proposed where the route abuts the park.

Two other "leisure drives or themed tours" have also been devised. A 55-mile "Back o' Skiddaw" tour to the north of the national park would take motorists over the fells towards the Solway Plain. More controversially, the Black Combe Tour is almost entirely within the park in the beautiful Duddon Valley-Eskdale area.

The county council has yet to make any decision on these tours. Officials have warned that the Black Combe route is "particularly sensitive". But Jan Darrall, assistant secretary of the Friends, fears that if the Coast Tour goes ahead it will set a precedent for deeper encroachments into the park.