What Wisbech “The capital of the Fens” needed was was an innovative plan – not just to catch up with what current towns were doing but to put us ahead. What was essential was that there was ambition in the demands being made for major infrastructure investment. What was achieved by the 2020 plan was an amalgam of mostly existing plans, and some financial tinkering on the edges, put together in haste for political convenience. Even whilst the plan was being “debated” – when the outcome was always certain – still the factors which continue to contribute to the decline in the building of out of town developments, and hurried housing developments which will be mostly sold for private rentals, continued apace.
Talk with any long term resident of Wisbech you will be told there has been a gradual decline over many years. Today the town is popularly known for its proliferation of off-licensed premises, a sense of high levels of anti-social behaviour and high numbers of migrant workers. The local economy has developed from a largely agricultural base to now also include industrial food production. The development of three large supermarkets on the edge of town, and in the case of Cromwell Road other large stores too, have largely removed business from the town centre where there remain but a few genuine local retail businesses, and a much poorer market place.
Whatever political decisions have been made previously the constant remains the location and geography of Wisbech; its proximity to other towns and the reliance on food production. What has changed is how these factors have been considered, adopted and responded to. This is the core of what any long term growth strategy should be based upon, in cohort with whatever creativity, imagination and opportunity might provide.
My instinct remains that the 2020 Plan was delivered with a good degree of cynicism with an eye on the County Council elections in 2013. For those who take an interest in local politics there has been ever-increasing disquiet over many developing issues in the town over the past couple of years, and this seemed to be a response by Conservatives to prevent a response at the ballot box. With this prejudice in mind I have taken time in my consideration of the Wisbech 2020 vision document. In my assessment of strategic plans I look for four general principles:
1. The value proposition. Do the sum of the proposals add value to the enterprise, or make it attractive for investment?
Much of the previous objection to investing on infrastructure; in the main railway and roads, has been the cost. Yet the very same politicians in the past who have been protagonists are now advocating, or at least promoting the opportunity that there might be improvements – but without discussing the funding or indeed the cost benefit.
The recent announcement on factory job losses illustrates the vulnerability that rests with reliance on a small number of large employers. It is also my personal view that many of these enterprises have kept a distance from the wider community that has not helped buiId either the local economy or confidence in it. There is no doubt the potential which could be brought by positive engagement and support – and this must be pursued but I believe that the future role of SMEs is not appropriately reflected. It is their potential for growth and increase in numbers that could generate employment and tax revenue – what do they need? How will this be delivered and prioritised?
If the argument on rail and road investment can be won on political imperative or on the strength of the potential social and economic alone then the job is done. However, it is quite incredulous to make the business case – which is claimed was always needed but not viable – but without the financial detail. What is the estimated final cost? When would it be estimated to be paid back?
2. Identifying core (and distinctive) competencies. What is unique, advantageous or exceptional about the proposition? This may not be what is possessed now but might also include aspirations or intent.
Wisbech should be rightly proud of the significant historical heritage. There are figures, Octavia Hill and Thomas Clarkson amongst them, who made contributions to the world. Many buildings of great beauty and architectural interest remain, although sadly many are decayed and some been lost. A town with deep rooted links with farming and agriculture but with a market almost lost without purpose or identity. The last decade has seen an influx of migrant workers, many who have settled and made a big contribution to all aspects of the town.
These are the raw ingredients. What the strategy should do is to seek the view of the many, perhaps with some alternatives, and then present a destination. If you are realistic about transformation then by its nature it must be all encompassing. This means reaching out to all, and engaging with all age groups, faiths, creed and ensuring that business as well as residents have a voice – and a responsibility to deliver.
I do not believe that this document sells a unique and special package. I see nothing about what makes this town great; it is a vanilla plan which could be applied to almost any town. The consequence is there is little for people to relate to, or hoist up a flag for; it is an empty vessel.
3. A strategic plan is of no value if it is not first challenged, then developed, and finally committed to by the management team.
Any strategy or policy is only as resilient as the challenges made to them during their development. The Wisbech 2020 “strategy” is in the main an accumulation of initiatives and intentions many of which were already planned or in the midst of delivery. As such there was little scope for either challenge or further development. It may be an effective way, presentationally, to package multiple projects together – and perhaps individually they might deliver an element towards a single goal – but this does not represent a strategy.
There was a consultative process at the development of the document – although there would be debate on the nature and comprehension of that process – but from what has been reported publicly I am unaware of any criticism or challenge on what are currently being presented as action points; their priorities and any dependencies.
The tiers of local Government are “signed up” but it remains unclear to me who has ownership of the plan. It is right and proper that stakeholders and agents are allocated tasks and responsibilities but there must be a project authority. This I would argue is one of the weaknesses, no clear leader and no leadership.
4. Measuring progress against your plan. This is a critical step because it does two things: It gives management feedback on progress, the management of risk, and provides feedback on how attainable the plan is and what refinements/additional resources are needed.
I look at the current plan and timelines and the tasks seem to be isolated, lacking priority, in many cases detailed resource implications, and certainly devoid of risk. There is no explanation how the published plan is being managed but as it stands there is no control; and mechanism for reporting progress is absent.
Packaged and sold as a long-term strategy it at best an amalgam of existing projects, and aspirations which have neither been costed nor committed to politically. There is a running message of action and change through the document but very little is genuinely new. Many of the objectives are laudable and perhaps desirable but in my view do not provide the roadmap to long-term success that is needed.
The starting point for any long-term strategy should be in identifying the long-term objectives for both the town and local businesses. What do the residents and business owners want to achieve? What resources and infrastructure is needed to succeed? What threats and opportunities are being provided by the wider world? So many critical factors missing, an absence of firm commitments on deliverables. I ask one final question….is it a horse?