Lakes pencil trade may be erased

Ian Herbert
Monday 06 September 1999 23:02
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THE LAKE District may lose its 400-year-old pencil industry because of an increasingly acrimonious planning dispute that centres on the national park's age-old struggle to balance commercial development with preservation.

Keswick's celebrated Cumberland Pencil Factory, which draws in 100,000 visitors a year, has never known a spat quite like it. What began as a planning argument has been submerged in threats of redundancies and thinly veiled accusations of inhumane tactics and even xenophobia.

The factory's American parent, Acco, applied several months ago for permission to expand, but the Lake District National Park's planning officers recommended refusal. Acco's pounds 5m project - including a new factory, art workshops, a museum and flats - needed to be subsidised by a new shop on the town's outskirts, which could be detrimental to Keswick centre, they said.

Acco took a dim view. It warned that it might pull out of Keswick altogether, with the loss of 100 jobs if the application was rejected.

Cumbria could ill-afford the blow. It has lost jobs at the AXA insurance company and K Shoes (both in Kendal) this year, and is badly short of industries other than tourism.

But despite the most persuasive endeavours of Keswick town council and Allerdale Borough Council (both of which want the development approved) and a 5,000-signature petition raised by workers at the factory, national park councillors have turned down the planning request.

One member of the national park, the former Labour MP Maureen Colquhoun, said Acco's threat to close down the factory was "a classic case" of a big American-based multinational "bullying their way through the national park for their own commercial gain". She said the company was "holding the staff to ransom".

But Alison Darwent, a secretary at the factory, said that, as a Canadian, she wanted to know why "there is such hatred against an American company prepared to invest millions of pounds in Keswick".

Attidudes are far removed from those in the 1550s, when the first graphite to be discovered, in Borrowdale, brought a cottage industry in pencil- making to the Lakes.

Via Flemish traders, the fame of Cumberland graphite spread quickly to artists in Italian schools and soon Keswick was feeding the graphite slats into wooden holders the Italians had developed.

The factory is home to the Cumberland Pencil Museum, where the most famous item is the world's largest pencil. There is also an exhibit demonstrating how Cumberland pencils were used to create Raymond Briggs's The Snowman.

The company now says it is reviewing its options in Keswick, though it is likely to appeal against the planning decision. The factory's managing director, David Sharrock, said: "These plans were formulated after we had sat down with staff. They are our local plans, not the parent company's."

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