“…everything has a past. Everything – a person, an object, a word, everything. If you don’t know the past, you can’t understand the present and plan properly for the future.”
― Chaim Potok
The work along Cromwell Road has mostly concluded. The drivers which had pounded out the heartbeat of progress have departed their sites, as the metallic skeletons have received their plated coats. The beginning of the next incidental journey of our town, or a purposeful rush to exploit opportunity for short-term gain? I can confess to the sinking feeling each time I drive by. The sight of yet another commercial development, rising from the ground like gravestones, marking the demise of another market town. Is there many other towns who would so willingly accept the building of new homes without improvements to already creaking infrastructure.
Many of the current problems faced in Wisbech – and the other Fen towns – are due to the lack of long-term planning. We now lie, as an isolated town; without a rail link, and with poor access to the national road network in all directions, but with high levels of HGVs driving through the heart of our town. The rush to attract – and then exploit – cheap labour provided the original incentive for the proliferations of factories, industrial agriculture and now added to by the building of (so-called) superstores. In Wisbech there were already three supermarkets, and two commercial centres, which have pulled retailers and shoppers away from the traditional town centre. The impact has been a loss of national retailers which has lead to a further loss of footfall with continued cyclical loss.
The town centre is desolate and despairing. The marketplace use is certainly no justification for the continued use of the description “Market Town” and whilst there remains hope, and with imagination and vigour, the possibility for rejuvenation, the cynical and deliberate implementation of the current “development” plan by the Conservative administrations will be a blight on the town for many years.
“I doubt that most people with short-term thinking love the natural world enough to save it.”
There is no disputing the need for jobs in the town, but most of that need has fallen from the closure of factory jobs – which was the draw for the additional population in the first place. The solution to this is not the provision of more retail jobs of low pay or part-time, and certainly not for the young and aspirational. To succeed, and to maintain that over a period of time, the economy needs to be mixed. There needs to be the right combination of production, service and technology and it is the responsibility of authorities to ensure there is the infrastructure to support this.
What many will find incredible is that we have a town, surrounded by space with some of it brown field, with many large buildings in the centre not just unused but in decay, and yet the solution was determined to build on the edge of town on an approach road which is already laden with heavy goods vehicles and traffic from the congested single carriageway of the A47.
I believe it is the failure to attract investment and to provide much needed infrastructure to Wisbech (and other Fenland towns) which led the Tories to decide that the only viable fix is the one offered. The costs and risks fall to the developers and retailers, it provides “instant” jobs and short-term economic boost. That this will lead to fall of the high street, increase in traffic congestion, pollution, low wages and low skilled jobs seems to be of little consequence. Additionally we are already also seeing the impact on housing, education and health services too – taking taxes from the additional workers but failing to invest in public services.
What should have been started 20 years ago was a campaign to improve transport links to enhance links to Cambridge (for example) and promote the area for green technology or advanced agricultural research. An early push for Broadband could have offered early opportunity for the great damp and decaying buildings in the town to be (and should be) re-invented as venues and business units/shops.
I find it cynical too the manner in which a number of town centre commercial premises have been permitted “change of use” to residential. There seems to be more deliberate but not discussed plan to change the nature of the town. Why are none of these issues openly debated? Where is the mandate to change the nature of our town? Whatever the driver for these combined changes I do not believe there is any appreciation as to what the final outcome will be either by the politicians pursuing the plan or those voters who put them in this position.
Housing is another issue for our town. There are multiple issues which include a lack of affordable housing for young families to buy, the large percentage of rental properties – which no doubt impact upon the first issue, and the “fit for purpose” for a large number of very small dwellings and without adequate road access or parking. There are steps which could have been taken, and will need to be addressed in the future. There are whole streets which are in need of investment and redevelopment, and perhaps some of the large empty buildings could be used for housing? Again, the Authorities failed to deliver for years when thoughtful and best planning could have been delivered instead we have a rush of “nested” new builds with small gardens but also at a time when none of the transport issues have been addressed and there are considerable issues with school and GP provision across the town. This will again compound our difficulties, leading to further social problems in the years ahead. The Cromwell Garden development is such a poor example – almost as if someone had challenged to make maximum number of planning failures: within a few hundred metres of food processing plants, inadequate off road parking including drives which front to main road and a complete absence of any green community areas within the build. Complete absence of innovation, clearly driven only to maximise profit on the site, without any apparent regard to social impact – additional traffic, playing areas and school travel times.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln
This year has seen a number of weather records broken, a number of times local roads have flooded and there have been alerts on rising river levels. Scientists and environmentalists agree this is the start of an age of such incidences largely attributed to climate change. This is not news; this has been a prediction for many years. It should have influenced government policy more than it has, both in terms of reducing environmental impact of all we do but also the planning and resourcing of our contingencies. At all levels we have been failed but perhaps now voters will consider the impact of ignoring or denying nature. Building on flood plains, concreting gardens, not allowing sufficient green for play (or drainage) between housing (to maximise profit), not harvesting grey water, and ensuring reliance on fossil fuels are all endemic of planning and environmental failure. I find it incredulous that with all of these factors to consider still it was decided to be the right decision to concrete and tarmac over thousands more square metres of land to build yet more retail parks – and in the long term not to insist (or perhaps grab a golden opportunity) to insist on innovative and environmental materials and building schemes for both retail and housing.
The belated political response from 2020 Vision (pun intentional http://www.wisbech2020vision.co.uk/) is nothing more than a list items which should already be in place. It is not innovative, bold or sustainable. It pays no reverence to our heritage or local resources, it does not extend democracy or encourage community participation. If there was an advantage over being neglected for decades it should have been an opportunity to “leapfrog” what other towns have had to do in the intervening years and learn from their mistakes – we should have been looking to future technologies and environmentalism. What we have instead is a plan which will allow the old town to fail whilst a new “red brick development” one fuelled by and focused around retail parks will grow, and perhaps in future expand into what exists and perhaps this is what people are willing to accept but it is not inevitable and it there is an alternative. The use of traditional skills and local materials is not about “being stuck in past” it is about re-invention, and re-imagining what works but it would seem architecture aesthetics are not on the agenda either. As you gaze upon the monstrous development along Cromwell Road – this is what the death of a market town looks like.
This is a direct consequence of failing to invest resources and political imperatives to our town. That all of this can happen in broad daylight is frankly incredible, perhaps the full impact has not directly hit individual families yet, or maybe because so many of either dis-enfranchised or lethargic to respond? When I have campaigned and spoken with people there is certainly an appreciation of strands of the problems we face but few willing to accept that the problems are related – as is the solution.
I have written previously on the lost opportunity, and although we should never accept defeat, but each step away from the late makes the return journey longer and more hazardous.
Garden City Principles
“The advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination”
The Garden City vision was developed by Ebenezer Howard (Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform 1898) to combine the very best of town and country living to create healthy homes for working people in vibrant communities. The heart of the garden city ideals are holistically planned new settlements which enhance the natural environment, provide high quality affordable housing and locally accessible jobs.
The Garden cities were the original manifestation of sustainable developments. The key principles include:
- Community ownership of land and long term stewardship of assets
- High quality imaginative design including homes with gardens
- Mixed tenure homes which are affordable for ordinary people
- A strong local jobs offer with a variety of employment opportunities within the garden city and easy commuting distance of homes
- Generous green space linked to the wider countryside, supporting wildlife and wider environmental plans.
- Access to strong local cultural, recreational and shopping facilities
- Integrated and accessible transport systems
- Local food sourcing, including allotments.
Where they have been introduced the garden city ideals have proven to be durable. Today, we face the same challenges confronted by Howard: provision of affordable housing, generating jobs and creating beautiful and inclusive places. However, we have also the new challenges of globalised markets and the urgent need to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Putting Things Right
Regeneration provides the opportunity to fulfill the ambitions of sustainable development by delivering multiple benefits including social housing, zero carbon design, sustainable transport and local food sourcing. Where there is a need to introduce additional housing it should also provide an attractive incentive to participate in democratic structures that put people at the heart of the wider community.
The planning system has a central role to play in the protection and restoration of the natural environment. Ensuring green infrastructure is protected, restored, created and managed through the strategic planning process, and specific planning decisions, is at the heart of this. However, it is the politicians who decide the priorities and get to decide of the application of the legislation to their programmes. Council officials will always seek to ensure that the letter of the law is applied but there have been sufficient instances within our local authority to question the political willingness to take advice, or do you believe there can be such a blend of arrogance and naivety to proceed unhindered?
The natural environment plays a fundamental role in sustaining our collective future, or at least is should. There is very little evidence locally in either statement or action to support this, but regeneration offers an opportunity to put things right. The use of current technology, and the renewed vigour which comes with an campaign of action could make a leap forward but the overall programme has to support the principles otherwise it fails.
It is widely recognised that people’s connection with nature can increase their health and well-being. The natural environment also provides a range of additional economic, social and environmental services without which society could not function. Except when there are local campaigns this authority continually fails to provide these green spaces, activities for youth and children, and the all-important maintenance. This is not just about children playing or dog walking, it’s about reducing car use, allowing rain water to soak away, about supporting local wildlife….even down to the detail of planting plants to feed the bees and the butterflies.
This is a plan for sustainable and organic growth; planning and building for the long term. Our town should be a reflection of our own ideals, heritage and principles. It’s image should be a source of inspiration and aspiration not despair.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The Tories have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgMEPk6fvpg