For too long Wisbech and The Fens have had to contend with poor transport links (Transport + Opportunity/Innovation = Prosperity), insufficient decent and affordable housing in rural areas in particular poor internet access. Successive Governments have failed to address the issues through their strategic planning for the region but probably more so local politicians have wholly failed to deliver but also made sufficient noise with Ministers. Failure to deliver big infrastructure has held back both the social and economic growth of the area more so than any other factor.
We need more than words of politicians; we need to see money on the table and firm commitments to promote the region, to generate belief of local people in the worth of their town. Above all a loud voice to promote to business and investors all the very best that can be offered in terms of local resources and produce, culture, and all the benefits that a diverse workforce can provide.
I maintain my criticism of the 2020 Vision (When a horse is an ass: 2020 is a patchwork of old ideas repackaged.) – it is a patchwork strategy which draws together only existing plans and proposals – what is needed is a bold statement of intent with resources attached. I still believe that very little was done to actively engage the community in the drafting of this initiative – best test would be to ask a few questions in the marketplace? Whilst I remain convinced that the motivation for the 2020 Vision was political, moving on it is essential that going forward there is a broad consensus on direction and scope for change.
The delivery of improved transport infrastructure would certainly attract new businesses but also provide the incentive for larger organisations to develop and implement long-term investment in the area. It remains a mystery to me that the economic case for development along the A47, which runs from East Midlands to East Coast, has not played a greater part in developing business cases for investment. For example, there are a number of transport companies in the area of Wisbech and for whom improved junctions and additional dual carriageway would provide a significant incentive to invest and grow.
Wisbech has been poorly served by planning decisions (We are planning to fail.). It continues to be a poor mix of small industrial, commercial, large industrial and residential in ill-defined areas with very little enforced zoning. This means that inappropriate traffic and congestion across town because of poorly considered and managed traffic flows, noise and other pollution around housing and schools, and a continued shortage of housing but scattering of industrial units within same areas. We cannot move factories – certainly not overnight – but certainly a sustainable planning strategy requires immediate shaping and enforcing. Over time the Council should look to relocate and redevelop industrial units within residential areas but the re-working of new roads and access will also provide excellent opportunities for new commercial property.
You will make your own choice about the impact on politics with regard to the current position – and I would suggest this only really matter with regard to mitigating against similar concerns in future. I do believe that Cambridgeshire County Council has a focus on Cambridge, and to a lesser extent Peterborough. I am sympathetic in so far as Cambridge does create the wealth and opportunities for much of the County but why so little effort to share this success beyond Ely? The improvements on A14 are a good example – absolutely they are long overdue but in terms of impact no greater than the A47 or a rail link for Wisbech. Secondly, I contend that local politicians have made little impact in raising the economic issues affecting the town – the current roll of County Councillors have barely raised a ripple on anything except negative headlines.
How many articles and news reports have you see on immigration in Wisbech? Yet how many times have you read anything regarding the local economy? The key to the success of the town is improving jobs and wages for the population, yet we remain largely dependent on low skill and low wage operations – and this has been the draw of migrant workers since the days when we relied on agriculture. We need to expand the economy of the town to provide better and more varied opportunities, we need to provide our young people with both mobility and ambition. With improved transport links to Cambridge and beyond we build that potential to make some gain from the innovation and learning centres. Politicians should be making the case today for Wisbech to host a hub to promote research in agriculture and green technology within some of the best agricultural lands in the UK.
Wisbech is renowned for its Georgian architecture and historical views (although there is much more to our story) but many of the older properties in the town are in disrepair, and many more are not usefully utilised. Again, with renewed transport links we again become an attractive proposition for creative businesses? We need to ensure we have good IT networks and again think of the potential benefit for local businesses who would be needed to support such a proposition. But you need the plan first, there must be a lead.
Major projects – which would include widening of the A47 (if not the installation of a northern relief road) and the provision of a rail link which provided a meaningful service – require the support of multiple stakeholders and most layers of local government. If there is a case to be had for greater devolved regional government including an elected mayor then these are the kind of projects to justify the means. Until this time it requires a singularity of mind to see through such changes, and to lead many others to assist in this endeavour.
I have written many times of the need for sustainable development, and argued that the history and positioning of Wisbech makes it ideally placed to champion and promote green energy and the wider case for “sustainable success”. It is a great shame that so many opportunities have not been missed but dumped in favour of short term commercial interests “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” by Ebenezer Howard. The residential development of Cromwell Gardens and then the nearby retail park have not held the interests of any party except the developers. These are prime examples where opportunities to innovate, to provide quality of life solutions, were sacrificed to maximise profit – although the continued empty units at retail park must surely question even profit? There must be an encouragement to innovate, to use new materials and technology, and to properly accommodate the identity of the town.
I would want to see the needs of the community written into the core principles of the planning strategy, a need to properly engage with the community on every proposal “Change must be inclusive not coercive”. But as a minimum there must be a proper and transparent audit undertaken of every planning proposal so that officials and politicians can be properly held to account for the decisions being made. Too often residents and other stakeholders are left only with the consequences of a decision with no genuine opportunity to contribute or comment.
There is a disjoint between how political decisions are made and the impact on everyday life Wisbech deserves better…and so does democracy.. Local democracy can seem pointless to some and this is an absolute failure of politicians regardless of politics. It is the duty of the elected to engage with residents and to facilitate change – they are inter-dependent if they hold any genuine credibility. The decisions made at election time are those which shape your town, provide school places, promote your business and get you to work on time.
We must provide businesses, public services and residents with certainty of today, and confidence on which to plan and build for tomorrow.