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Ambitious plans for Wisbech announced

A new horticultural training college, more investment in the port and a rethink on the town's main shopping area are among ambitious plans for Wisbech that have been announced by FDC's Leader, Councillor Alan Melton, in a major speech.

Alan Melton

Here is the full text of the speech, made at a business breakfast at the Boathouse on Tuesday, March 6:

Good morning and welcome to the Boathouse. As I will explain, we have great plans for this area of Wisbech. I intend to address some of the initiatives that Fenland District Council are engaged with and are promoting. These proposals will take time to achieve, but in the meantime, I have asked that steps be taken to tidy up the site next door.

The last time that I addressed such a gathering, my remarks went global when I weaved in a reference to rabbits with those who seek to preserve our heritage!

Well, I shall be making three announcements today, but nothing as controversial.

What I want to try and do is to explain to you some of the initiatives we are working on to enhance and re-brand project Wisbech.

With our partners at Cambridgeshire County Council, we are serious but realistic with our objectives; we intend to be honest, and practical.

Nick Clarke will address his cabinet later this morning, which will give the county perspective and announce new thinking.

Let me start with two of the headline talking points at the moment. The rail link and the dualling of the A47 between Thorney and northern Wisbech.

I said I would be practical and realistic: neither of these schemes is likely to be built or come to fruition in the medium term. Firstly, the finance is not available and there are practical difficulties to be overcome. Assuming the £30million was available to rebuild the line, this would soon prove to be a wild underestimate of the costs involved. There is no station, there would need to be an underpass or flyover to cross the A47, (allow for a double cost if the road is dualled). There is insufficient capacity along the Peterborough to Cambridge line to handle an increase in traffic and even if capacity was addressed there would be increased costs in signalling and scheduling, involving massive disruption to existing services. Before such a proposition can be taken seriously, capacity must be increased between Peterborough and Cambridge; this is a top priority of Cambridgeshire County Council and Fenland District Council. The Ely loop and the building of Chesterton station will provide the long-term hope for the re-opening of rail traffic from Wisbech.

The dualling of the A47 is not even on the radar of the Department of Transport. There are greater priorities in Cambridgeshire, including the A14 and the improvements to the A10 between Ely and Cambridge.

We in Fenland and Cambridgeshire are putting our full weight behind the A605 Whittlesey by-pass.

This will relieve capacity between Rings End and Wisbech and provide an alternative to the congested A47 between Wisbech and Thorney when the road is busy or blocked. It will also provide much relief to Whittlesey town centre. We can also explore alternative forms of financing for this local but vital scheme.

We must therefore concentrate on the assets that we have, or know what we can enable.

The skills and wealth of Wisbech has always been based on a few basic industries:

· Agriculture

· Engineering

· Port Facilities

· Construction

· Brewing

· Horticulture

I want to focus on three of these headings:

Skilled engineering with construction skills have always been a bedrock of the Wisbech economy. That is why Fenland District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council have invested so heavily in the College of West Anglia, to ensure the long-term survival of the college, but also to continue to provide the labour market with a pool of skilled engineers for the future, not only to support existing enterprises but also to encourage other enterprises to move to Wisbech, in the knowledge that there is a pool of skilled operatives ready to join the employment market and that there is the capacity to continue with lifelong learning.

We shall continue to invest in the Port area. We have plans to extend the mooring and repair facilities; we also intend to capitalise on the expanding renewable energy sector off the east coast, by offering service, supply and maintenance. We would also like to promote a new boat building enterprise. We will invest in land and building to facilitate this, creating long term and sustainable skilled jobs.

Horticulture has always played a large part in the economy of Wisbech and the surrounding areas.

I am pleased to announce today that Fenland District Council and R. Delamore Ltd have joined together to provide and build a horticultural training facility at their depot at Wisbech St Mary.

The facility will provide training in: Propagation, Research and Development, Marketing, Packaging and Finance etc.

We are using the new powers under the Planning Reform Act and the Localism Act to help facilitate this scheme. I can also announce that the first six apprentices will be recruited during 2012 with more to follow in 2013.

These apprentices will work and train on the job, they will not only benefit existing staff, but also the horticultural industry. There will be practically based skills training as well as formal training. This first stage will cost £50k in 2012 and £75,000 in 2013. We shall be seeking further funding from the EU, and hopefully with the help of Steve Barclay, some residual government grant.

This is an initiative with the public and private sector working together.

My sincere thanks to R. Delamore and in particular Wayne Eady the managing director, for working so closely and enthusiastically with us.

We also intend to improve the built environment, using our assets and land holding to facilitate our objectives, I shall shortly be announcing significant re-development plans for Wisbech. We shall raise the quality of buildings, continue to invest in the local infrastructure and build upon the £4.3 million of capital expenditure already committed from Fenland's capital budget, for 2012 to 2015. As asset values rise and funding become available, we will build upon this sum, which represents 24% of the total forecast expenditure for Fenland during that period.

We shall re-visit our current and future plans for the main shopping area. We need to ask some very searching questions. Nothing should be ruled in or out, including contraction, re-building and moving the centre of shopping, realism must prevail in today's changing retail environment and expectations.

We need to change the work culture. The big question that is always asked is: "If Wisbech has always had a high level of registered un-employment, why have employers had to recruit from abroad to fill the many vacancies that have occurred over the last 5 years or so?"

Is it a lack of basic skills? Are basic literacy and numeracy levels too low? Has the benefit culture taken hold, removing the incentive to work? If this is the case, central government has a role to play in changing the work environment and to make work more attractive than idleness.

To tackle this and other significant underlying problems there needs to be a new partnership including government, local government, the private sector and the educational/skills establishment.

Within the Cambridge and Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership, we will propose a Wisbech Enterprise Area.

We will seek to mobilise investment, relax the planning rules and use the tools of the new General Power of Competence within the Localism Act, to achieve our aims.

It gives me no satisfaction that in Cambridgeshire, Wisbech is perceived as the poor relation. I want to see Wisbech in the same league as March, Ely, Huntingdon and St Ives.

We in Cambridgeshire and Fenland are playing our part, now for the rest.

Finally, as part of the process of improving the built environment, I am today (in association with the Cambridgeshire Times) announcing the launch of the 2012 Fenland Building Design awards. Which this year will be held on July 11 here in the Boathouse. The event will commence at 7pm. The event is to raise the awareness of good design and construction within Fenland and demonstrate the wide variety of high quality design and build in Fenland.

As from today we therefore welcome submission of entries. Details can be obtained from our Building Control Team or the Cambridgeshire Times.

Alan Melton

Leader: Fenland District Council

06 March 2012