When I first moved to Wisbech I saw a market town that still held promise. Despite the obvious issues with failing buildings, there remains much architecture to admire and be proud of. But it struck me how lacking in infrastructure it was, lacking rail connection, very poor access to national road network, and poorly presented local road networks. Problems with school places, a deserted High Street with no night time economy, and such a poor market it struggled to justify it’s position as a market town. But so many motivated individuals and clubs – a healthy civic society although still lacking cohesion and single purpose. It quickly became apparent how poorly the town is served politically, such inertia and “unworthiness” – until it became politically saleable most local Tories opposed railway on the basis that “there is no business case”.
Apathy and conservatism have held back The Fens from realising their potential. It has been the failure to embrace change which has been at the heart of the local political agenda, which ironically has lead to the rapid decline of our High Streets and the neglect of local heritage. Meaningful progress can only be achieved by both fundamental change to the economic policy and significant capital investment in the infrastructure – I would propose that one supports the other. As parents, as citizens, we have to hold a greater ambition for our town and our tomorrow – yes we do deserve better whatever others might say.
It is the need for sustainable economic growth, both to increase general prosperity but also to provide sufficient and quality employment opportunities for current and future needs too, which is the greatest priority. Businesses will not invest unless they have confidence and the environment to support future success. The keystone solution promoted by Tories has been the continuous building and renewing of superstore development. They have literally poured thousands of tons of concrete and tarmac over land already under risk of flooding to build demand for cheap goods and services which in themselves are supported by many low-wage and low-skill jobs – it is an economic plan of ever decreasing returns. Just as they have done with planning, the Tories economic planning has largely ignored local heritage, natural resources and failed to invest or encourage future technology – all of which should have been at the core of the strategies. It was only when the reality of elections in 2015 that the Tories realised they were now going to have to sell the outcomes, and not the promises, of their polices – there is now much effort to re-package and re-present themselves but the legacy of their failings will be here for some time yet.
If it is true that “you can’t start a fire without a spark” then the good people of Wisbech should not anticipate any great breakthrough in the near future without a seismic shift in the political landscape. The “drift” of policy promoted by the Tory administrations of both Fenland and Cambridgeshire is either driven by hard-line ideology of free-market salvation or else it is a complete absence of imagination or ambition for Fenland – either way it has failed. The rush to exploit opportunities for superstores to expand or provide new sites without any apparent consideration to any long term impact or benefit analysis, is both shallow and uninspiring. Can it really be the best that can be done for a couple of hundred low-wage jobs to be created at the potential loss of independent traders, and the demise of community hub as shoppers slip away from the town centres? There are of course always incentives offered to amenable local authorities but we don’t even seem to have got a good deal from this with traffic often queuing to get out of both Tesco and Morrisons.
The retail parks have a role to play https://deanlreeves.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/the-supermarket-economy/ but it is lethargic and short-termism of the highest order for them to centre piece of business strategy banquet. The first step should be to interrogate the largest employers – what are their current plans? What could be done to encourage them to expand or invest? There will be commercially sensitive matters of course but equally I suspect be many areas of common interest and benefit, mostly around infrastructure. A personal view – because it is part of my vision for a modern market town – is the necessity for the opportunities and environment to encourage SMEs. The core of the market town should be independent traders exploiting local produce and niche skills being presented against a traditional backdrop.
The final consideration in development of a grand plan is possibly the hardest to quantify; the views and aspirations of the local community which is multi-faceted and very complex in nature. The community is the amalgam of residents, faith groups and “other interests” who will all want varying degrees of influence and input. The role of the local politician is the glue to this process. The local authorities implement the decision made by the ruling party but there is an obvious disjoint between people voting for a political party but at the same time criticising the decisions which derive from it.
Party politics does sadly feed the ambitions of the few, and for this reason priorities and directions can often seem to favour individual politicians and certain areas as a consequence. A good representative will of course stand their ground regardless of the personal cost to them but sadly such councillors are a rarity. However the system we have is the one we have to work within and so it IS the local councillor who must be seen to represent the initial views of residents – therefore think on when you vote, read the policies not just a glance at rosette! How consultation with any group is managed may be a source of great debate itself and there will be questions of resources to be answered but to be successful there must be “buy-in” from all the stakeholders.
So now we consider the “opportunities”:
- The expansion of the A47 has long been debated and although there have been false dawns there does appear to be a renewed political interest and enthusiasm for this project (although most meaningful support from Norfolk rather than Cambridgeshire?). This road is strategically important linking the North and the Midlands to the East coast. It is a key part of the rejuvenation plans for Norwich and Great Yarmouth in particular. Wisbech is home to a number of haulier companies so is it not an obvious opportunity for development perhaps a container hub?
- The development of the “water front” seems in all honestly to be a limp biscuit. What are the plans for opening up the Nene for access to encourage tourism and travel? The potential for business opportunities on the North and South Brinks would be obvious – I could foresee antique shops, galleries and cafes prospering from water tourists in particular.
- Wisbech is currently a town of +20,000 people and continuing to grow. It is one of the largest towns in the UK without a connection to the rail network. There is little doubt that if there was a rail link it would be widely used for work and leisure – and most people would agree with this. The cost of re-connection including the siting of a new station would be a very significant capital cost but it should not be considered prohibitive. It is disappointing that in 2013 the business case has still not been assembled but what I would present to critics of the proposal is what the long-term position of this town will be without a railway – probably very similar to the previous 30 years I would suggest. The rail link IS the catalyst for many of the changes and certainly essential if we are to encourage SMEs to town, and to provide ever greater learning, working and leisure activities to children and young people. There is a great cultural heritage associated with the railways and tramway which might also be exploited for tourism.
- Wisbech is surrounded by agricultural production yet how much local produce is available and promoted either within the town or as “Product of Wisbech”? Both large and small producers must be encouraged to work together to promote the area – and locals must be given the opportunity to support them in this endeavour. The market place is a shadow of what it used to be – not seen any evidence of a spark here either – and it should be the showcase of what Wisbech and the surrounding villages have to offer.
- It is good to see the investment made to bring and to develop training colleges to Wisbech. This does provide the kernel of the possibility for the promotion of agricultural science and green technology business for the area. The geographical location of Wisbech and it’s proximity to both Cambridge and Peterborough should provide the ideal base for field-based research and development.
- Underpinning all of this is pursuit of a (blueprint) greener town and economy. This is how we again make Wisbech special, creating an environment that is better for our lives, and through a commitment from each and every business we purchase, make, build, sell and consume from local suppliers and providers. We cut down on waste, on fuel, and we illustrate from the way we live, work and play why this is the best place to be. This is the chance to start afresh, to realise the ambition of all. This is not a gimmick it is a genuine opportunity to update not just the image but the ethos of how a modern market town. I think Octavia Hill would approve.
And the “threats”:
- The unbridled promotion of superstore developments which would continue to draw custom away from the dwindling town centres.
- The failure to proceed with rail link for Wisbech – what future does this provide in a further 20 years?
- The failure to upgrade or re-route A47 road. It is essential that a long-term view is taken of the route, it must not be a future reason for delay or cancel of rail-link. There must be a substantial and comprehensive transport plan. If the road is not expanded it will certainly be a deterrent to some businesses locating or investing in the area.
- The nature of the town centre has changed markedly over the past decade in all towns. What will the long term viability be if the market folds or further retail space is lost to off-licenses, bookmakers or payday loan companies?
- The recent announcement of factory job losses highlights the vulnerability of relying too much on a single sector for the provision of employment. The town does not currently have that flexibility or sufficient capacity to provide alternative employment or opportunities (although many empty premises).
- THE most critical risk is the “fail to try, fail to succeed” one which seems to be the driver at present.
- Housing is an item for immediate attention. There is insufficient social housing property available and the failure to exert control over privately rented properties lends itself to people sharing cramped and sometimes very poor conditions. Much of the private rental market is made up of small terraced housing which ill-suits modern living and much requires investment and re-development. This provides opportunity for growth and the addressing of a public social ill but with an exceptional price tag attached which requires innovation and enterprise. It is right and proper that the local authority provide investment to provide the foundation but not necessarily the whole of the funding but there has to be that inspiration and encouragement to for schemes to get running. In the long term the provision of decent housing is one of the incentives for citizens to invest in their neighbourhood. A rail link which would allow for commuters to reach Cambridge or even London would have an immediate impact on property values but also the desirability for additional new, but also green, developments.
The town, the people, deserve better. We are deserving of leadership, we need to look forward. and walk together.