A war of words has broken out over plans for a white-knuckle tourist attraction on a Lake District fell.
Landscape charity the Friends of the Lake District said allowing the proposed 1.2km-long zip-wire ride at Honister would set a precedent for more developments in remote areas.
But Honister Slate Mine, which wants to install the high-adrenaline ride, accused the Friends of wanting to mothball the Lake District and turn it into an area only visited by pensioners.
Lake District National Park Authority’s planning committee is due to decide the application on Wednesday, after delays following the withdrawal of the initial proposals last October followed by the death of Honister boss Mark Weir in a helicopter crash just a few hundred metres from the site in March this year.
Honister Slate Mine wants to build the aerial slide, which would see users descending from crags on Fleetwith Pike to the slate mine below, to complement its via ferrata, which allows non-climbers a taste of adventure tackling the crags using fixed rungs and wires, in a set-up more commonly seen in the Alps.
The mine’s owners were recently fined £15,000 with costs of £13,190 costs plus a £15 surcharge by West Cumbria Magistrates for unlawfully extending the via ferrata into a site of special scientific importance.
Friends’ planning officer Richard Pearse said: “This is a line in the sand proposal in our view. A recreational development of this scale has never before been allowed upon a remote fell such as this.
“It has implications for the entire ethos of the national park. We have major concerns over the impact it would have upon the landscape and general character of the area, and the precedent it would set. There are potentially significant implications for rare wildlife habitats, and the recreational experience of walkers and climbers who use the area currently.”
The Friends said the proposed site is on one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Lake District, containing wildlife habitats so valuable it has been designated a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation – a designation of European significance.
It pointed out objectors to the scheme included the British Mountaineering Council, Campaign for National Parks, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the Lake District, the Open Spaces Society and the Ramblers.
Natural England, the Government’s statutory advisor on wildlife and landscape, has also objected to the proposal.
But Honister Slate Mine claimed the support of mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, who ironically is vice-president of the Friends of the Lake District.
Locals are also lining up in support of the zip-wire plans, with Cumbria Tourism, Keswick Town Council, and Loweswater Parish Council backing the mine owners. Honister Slate Mine, with the late Mr Weir’s partner Jan Wilkinson at the helm, has gathered 11,000 signatures of support and more than 700 letters in favour. It said the Friends organisation has only 223 letters of support.
Company spokesman Ellis Butcher said: “The biggest harm facing this area is if we allow a vocal minority of environmental do-gooders to mothball the Lake District and turn it into a museum visited by pensioners and the ageing only.
“Or worse, a place for recreational snobs where the definition of fun and enjoyment is dictated to us by organisations of non-residents who do not work in tourism and do not depend on a successful tourism pound to earn a living.
“These objectors need to get real about the 21st century, the younger generation and the Lakes economy if they are genuine friends of this area. Young people are not coming to this area in sufficient numbers and unless we show a bit of backbone and convert them now, tourism in this area will nose dive in 10 years.
“That will cause major economic problems, unemployment and lead to closed shops, hotels and businesses.
“We have to come up with ways of getting new younger visitors to love this environment and you can’t do that if all you’re offering them is the same things that they can do anywhere else in the country.
“The Lake District could be a world leader for adventure and instead we’re lagging behind other forward-thinking tourism destinations. If the environmental bodies think this area can economically survive by forever dishing up what we always have done, they are in total denial.
“This is about offering people choice. Anyone who knows anything about tourism will tell you the same – the independent evidence and research to support it all exists.”
The Lake District is an economically depressed area, and Mr Butcher pointed out Mark Weir had reopened and kept going a rare piece of industrial heritage and provided employment for local residents.
“We are trying our hardest to keep England’s last working slate mine alive at the top of a mountain pass,” he said.
“If we weren’t here one of Lakeland’s most important industries would be lost forever. Mining is a 19th century business and it isn’t economically viable to keep us here providing jobs for people. The business of the Lake District in the 21st century is tourism and we need to keep diversifying.
“This area needs to hold its breath and take a big courageous step forward because if it does, it would really help raise the profile of the Lake District across a new audience who think this is not for them.”
The company denied the zip-wire would have the environmental impact the Friends were claiming. It said the slate mine site attracted 120,000 visitors a year and was a noisy industrial area. It has been for centuries due to large-scale mining activities – once one of the area’s biggest exports, it added.
The mine owners stressed those taking part on the zip wire would have to walk 1,000ft up a cliff-face first which, they said, would put off a lot of people. They said at its busiest in the summer there would only ever be a maximum of 57 descents a day – staggered over the course of the day. The development would also help the mine create six new jobs and not have to lay off most of its workforce in winter.
They added: “One accusation has been that the application would damage the environment and a sensitive site and habitat. The damage caused would be smaller than one per cent because for the majority of the zip-wire experience, the participants’ feet wouldn’t be touching the ground.”
Planning officers have not made a recommendation to development control committee members for the Kendal meeting.