The incessant pouring of concrete (or retail development as some prefer) over The Fens continues apace and I fear yet more is to follow – it sometimes feels like literal floodgates of lime have been opened. Whatever the supposed economic business case for the build – which is clearly flawed if you consider the many many months of empty units – the environmental and social impact for Wisbech (and for other market towns) is enormous, and I remain unconvinced that appropriate account has been taken of these considerations in their environmental or social impacts.
For people who value the heritage and traditions of each unique town we have to dust ourselves down, decide what needs to be done and get on with it. There remains much to cherish, and too many people who care, to let our town centre slip into quiet oblivion. I have written previously on some of the practical steps which can be taken but now in the shadow of the Cromwell Road development we need inspiration, a plan and political commitment to take things forward. We can all influence the world in which we live in by our actions and our words – and how we shop – but we need to make an impact politically too. We have to encourage people of the importance of making a stand, and never to concede the battle is lost.
There has been a long running debate regarding many fine buildings in ruinous repair but population seem to generally be satisfied at election time by a few insincere words to re-elect the very same politicians who have stood by and allowed so much of the town to slip away. Wisbech still today holds many wonderful buildings, and perhaps in people’s minds as buildings they will always be there. Sadly a few have already been lost, a few have had money invested but which there seems to be no public mission for, but unless the economic landscape changes – and there is a clear strategy in place – the town centre will continue into an abyss.
The centre of our town has always been where neighbours, friends and the wider community did their shopping. But it was so much more than that, it was where we met, talked and laughed. We lost so much when we started using supermarkets; especially when they started selling everything – convenience at the very least took away so many opportunities. For many reasons it is probably as important as it has ever been for us to meet and “have fun” together. We don’t want, and probably could never provide the business case, for a clone High Street, but we have an opportunity to build something special…..we really do.
Many people talk incessantly about the heritage of our town but few do much, those that do work tirelessly whilst others have simply taken the photo opportunities. Too many great heritage buildings, sunken by years of neglect, need to be brought to live but equally important roles must be found for them. There are many blue-prints including pop-up shops, community projects, arcades, enterprise units and galleries funded by grants, by public commission and events, and private investment.
If we truly want to respect the history of our town then the tributes to our famous sons and daughters must compliment their achievements, and we should have their stories sown throughout the town not just on road signs. There should be regular events and public notices including readings, concerts, walks and making every effort to work with the many community groups and schools to embed a sense civic pride in our town.
Despite the decline of our High Street (reasons may be found elsewhere on my musings) we continue to hold a few really good genuine local shops but we continue to lose them. Over the past couple of years we have seen the welcome arrival of a number of craft ventures, they could provide a genuine opportunity to establish an identity. I for one, would very much welcome this – I think this fits perfectly with the history of the town, the backdrop of our historic buildings, and the energy and influence of the migrant community. We should secure premises, and events, and start to promote the town if this is what we want.
Art should play a big part of our renaissance simply because it makes us smile. When one person smiles then another follows. Let’s turn our backs on decaying brick walls and allow our artists and communities to colour our world. The diversity of our community is something to be cherished and celebrated, it should be our strength and our pride. Let us show the world, and bring in the visitors with all that can be seen and experienced too. It is a way to engage all segments of a community, and can provide a great incentive to businesses, residents, and visitors to interact. It can be a way to draw strands of public strategy together, and even be part of the narrative to the daily life of the town.
There have been previous unfulfilled commitments to invest in Wisbech marketplace. It is now being reported that when Wisbech Town Council purchased the site from Fenland District Council there was a sum of £25,000 available for this specific purpose. The little work which has been done has been pitiful and added nothing of “added value” to the site. Against this background the decision to spend – at short notice (just months before elections) – some £19,000 on Christmas lights was an act of opportunity and cynicism. Reserve money that added some unmemorable glitter for a couple of weeks in December which was not part of any strategy or plan, and brought no benefit.
Let us also invest the infrastructure of the Marketplace – let us adopt technology, sympathetic paving, lighting and bollards and finally sort out the traffic access and parking issues….and bring some public art into the space. There seems to be a consensus when speaking with people that Wisbech is at it’s best when we hold our public celebrations. The Wisbech Festival, the Rose Fair, Christmas Light switch on, and the Music Festival are fixtures in most peoples diaries. For the main part these are missed opportunities as far as promoting the heritage and identity of the town – not decrying that most people do enjoy themselves – but these could be fairground rides, stalls and entertainment anywhere. Events cannot be stand alone incidences (and mostly using the same ingredients) rather they must be part of a strand within a wider strategy promoting the town and it’s identity.
There are many talented people in the town, and some have worked hard in the delivery of events (and this has been evident in the improved professionalism of the Christmas light switch on event for example) but sadly local politics has impacted negatively in the “talent” which voters have chosen – many elected politicians contributing nothing at all to the debates or the delivery of events. Voters should pay more attention to the discussions and decisions at the town hall, it is also surprising that so few businesses are willing to publicly challenge and criticise what are obvious deficits to the progress of our town.
The market is woeful. A small number of regular stall holders need to be supported, and every effort must be made to encourage more quality stalls – some of which would no doubt be helped by improving the facilities and physicality of the area. I continue to believe we should have improved identity for promotion and professionalism – and again the town council must encourage every opportunity for extended markets including the Moon Market concept. There should also be special markets, and auctions, every reason to use our marketplace. We still have no meaningful night time economy – very few places in town centre to draw and keep people – except for weekends you’ll never even find a taxi.
There was a moment perhaps 18 months ago – middle of 2014 – when there were a number of disparate art and craft based businesses in town. There was a genuine opportunity to promote an opportunity in the town, to develop a specialism and unique identity. It was like many opportunities completely missed and whilst I would never “give up” some businesses and key people have moved on. You want people to visit our town then make it a special place because “being near to a giant retail park” is not a sustainable strategy.
The heart of our town must be living; it should be creative, fun and enterprising. We need a plan.