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Top urban designer backs Wisbech rail link campaign

One of the country's top urban designers has thrown his weight behind the campaign to reopen the rail link between Wisbech and March, thus creating a direct train service to Cambridge, Peterborough and beyond.

David Rudlin, winner of the 2014 Wolfson Economic Prize, was speaking at a conference last Friday (June 12) that brought together leaders of the Wisbech 2020 Vision to take a longer-term look at the town's future.

He said: "Access to a town is obviously vital. The rail link makes a huge difference and you are right to prioritise that. After that the sky's the limit."

He also insisted that it was crucial for the town to develop its own distinctive role and character.

Mr Rudlin, director of the urban design consultancy URBED, drew on his experience of working in towns and cities all over the country, including his Wolfson prize-winning garden city concept.

He said: "Towns face particular challenges now that they are no longer the centres of the universe they once were. With the huge number of places competing with each other, some win and some lose.

"We value towns that have independence, their own identity and character. Finding a way of becoming distinctive is a key thing that towns like Wisbech need to do."

Possible roles included its development as a commuter town or retirement town - both had potential for bringing in wealth, energy and ideas, he said. ""Towns that are great are not those that resist change but embrace it."

Earlier Steve Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, said there was increasing political support for the Wisbech-Cambridge rail link.

"We now have Cabinet members calling for an acceleration of its roll-out," he said. "There could be no clearer signal of Government support or that we are pushing at an open door. They want it done and done quickly."

All the speakers agreed that everyone in the public and private sector had to speak with one voice to ratchet up the pressure to secure the necessary funding.

Graham Hughes, Cambridgeshire County Council's executive director of economy, transport and environment, said: "We've come on massively is terms of developing the case for the rail link and a lobbying strategy. It's not the technical preparation that holds us up. We can do that. The real issue is unlocking the money."

But he warned: "It's still going to be a long and potentially quite difficult journey."

The conference saw the launch of "Wisbech: beyond 2020", a new, longer-term vision that built on Wisbech 2020 and the "Infrastructure for Growth" initiative launched earlier this year.

Stressing the need to look further into the future, Peter Simpson, chief executive of Anglian Water, summoned up the spirit of Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust.

"Today Octavia Hill wouldn't be saying just having a vision for the next five years was enough," he said. "All visions start as impossible, go to improbable and then to inevitable. We need to keep pushing ourselves."

Real momentum had been created and lots of major organisations were now showing an interest in Wisbech, including AstraZeneca, Nestle and Wallgreens Boots Alliance.

But he stressed that it was crucial to engage local people. Consequently, a key part of the "Wisbech: beyond 2020" project would be seeking their views on what sort of town they wanted and the best ways of achieving it.

"The last thing we want is for us all to be saying 'This is the vision you must have'," he said. "It's got to be the vision of the people who live here."

Fenland District Council Leader Cllr John Clark said: "Much has already been achieved since the Wisbech 2020 Vision was launched. But some things - including securing the major infrastructure improvements that we need - will inevitably take us well beyond 2020. So we need to start looking further into the future now. That's why we welcome all these fresh ideas and inspiration."

Article added June 17, 2015