Wisbech: ‘The forgotten town,  facing more challenges than most others’  

A picture postcard from Wisbech, July 2022

A picture postcard from Wisbech, July 2022 - Credit: Wisbech Tweet

Wisbech resident ALAN WHEELDON posts regularly to social media about his home town. And here, shares with Wisbech Standard readers, his letter to Mayor Dr Nik Johnson.  

It paints a depressing picture, concluding with a call for “someone to seriously champion our town on a whole new level”. 

Several years ago, a report found that Wisbech is home to over a quarter of all Fenland’s residents.  

Once a thriving town, it has struggled to redefine itself since the industrial revolution. 

It has experienced sustained underinvestment, increased levels of deprivation, low-skill and low-paid employment and challenging educational needs.  

A national index that measures health, education, crime, income, employment and barriers to housing and services, shows that Wisbech sits in the bottom 10 per cent nationally for four of the top eight deprivation indicators.  

Despite only being 40 miles away from Cambridge, rail transport links have been lost and road links suffer from underinvestment. 

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It has left a population increasingly cut off from the economic and social networks that communities depend on.  

The report concluded that…...it is clear that Wisbech faces more challenges than most other towns. 

In 2012 the then leaders of Fenland District and Cambridgeshire County Council and the MP for North East Cambridgeshire met and all three figures agreed that the challenges faced by Wisbech were greater than those elsewhere in their constituencies. 

The life expectancy for Wisbech residents is three years less than for Cambridge.  

Rates of emergency admissions for heart disease, heart attack, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for Wisbech are all over 50 per cent above national averages and for cancer incidence it is 10.6 per cent above the national average.  

Premature mortality rates for those under 75 in Wisbech are 30.9 per cent higher than in England, and for those under 65 are 43.8 per cent higher.  

Even today, in spite of these damning statistics, it is still virtually impossible to get a doctor’s appointment. 

And recently a senior officer for the NHS had to apologise for a hopeless and terrible blood test service that left patients waiting up to four weeks for a simple blood test.  

One major problem is that our doctor’s surgeries are heavily oversubscribed, as illustrated by one Wisbech practice which has 4,393 patients per GP with the surgery handling an incredible 20,151 patients. Twice the national average. 

On top of all this, 35 per cent of the people in Wisbech have no formal qualifications whatsoever, twice as many as the rest of Cambridgeshire.  

Only a third of students who arrive at school meet the national standards for Key Stage 2 English and Maths. 

With Wisbech being home to a disproportionately high number of immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, we have a situation where up to 50 per cent of pupils in Wisbech primary and infant schools, do not have English as their first language. 

Wisbech is the one of the largest towns in England not connected to the rail network.  

Restoring a rail link is deemed critical for supporting future growth in Wisbech, attracting investment to the town, linking affordable housing with good employment and education.  

Direct services between Wisbech and Cambridge will unlock better job opportunities for Wisbech residents and school leavers.  

However, it seems that even now, the promised rail link seems dead in the water. This inability for school leavers to peruse their ambitions outside the town results in the appalling statistic placing Wisbech as the 6th worst town in the whole country for social mobility. 

Furthermore, the A47 is single carriageway for much of its journey east and west from Wisbech makes convenient travel unsafe and slow.  

All of the above means that it is difficult to work in any of the East of England’s primary employment centres, Peterborough, Cambridge, and Norwich, whilst living in Wisbech. 

All these issues prompted creation in 2012 of the 2020 vision for Wisbech with the promise of a new Garden Town and all the investment, developments and improvements associated with it.  

Sadly, it is now 2022 and we have very little to show towards achieving this ambitious but necessary plan and it remains little more than a pipe dream.  

However, what we do have is the threat of even more houses being built, to add pressure and strain on the already inadequate infrastructure. 

It's no coincidence that Incinerator companies, who are three times more likely to site their incinerators in deprived areas, chose Wisbech as a prime place to site one of the largest incinerators in Europe. 

And with deprivation comes crime. It is also no coincidence that Wisbech has a crime rate that is 41 per cent higher than the rest of Cambridgeshire.  

Furthermore, Wisbech is the most dangerous medium-sized town in Cambridgeshire and is among the top 10 most dangerous overall out of all of Cambridgeshire's 262 towns, villages, and cities. 

The government’s acknowledgement that economic differences remain between different parts of the UK, and that these economic differences have real implications, by affecting people’s lives through their pay, work opportunities, health, and life chances.  

It is a narrative that could have been written with Wisbech in mind. Tackling these economic differences, and driving prosperity, in a bid to level up ‘left behind’ regions of the UK, was made a key priority for this government. 

So, when the government released plans for a £4.8 Billion Levelling up fund, you would have thought that Wisbech would be top of the list for some of this money.  

Especially as investment for Wisbech citizens, at only £90 per head of population, is the lowest in the whole of the UK with the national average double that at £180 per head, and as that’s just the average, many regions are therefore getting almost £300 per head. 

Sadly, and bizarrely Wisbech was not even entered into the bidding for the phase one of this scheme, but the much smaller March town was, with them receiving an £8.6 million windfall to boost their town.  

Wisbech has been entered for Phase II however a small visitors centre plus greening of a couple of areas in town is certainly not ambitious enough to make any real difference to the fortunes of the Wisbech residents. 

This article is not just another overly negative tirade.  

The facts and figures plus much of the narrative has been taken from reports made by senior officials at Fenland district and Cambridgeshire county councils. This is more of a reality check. 

For example, when a plan for Wisbech labelled the 2020 Vision was proposed in 2012 it listed the scale of the challenge that lay ahead. 

It stated that Wisbech has lower education and skills attainment, poor health and wellbeing, lower life expectancy, limited employment opportunities, lack of community cohesion, historic buildings in a state of collapse, poor road connectivity, poor rail connectivity and a need for economic regeneration. 

Ten years on and literally nothing has changed. Furthermore,  

I am finding it difficult to pinpoint anything that our local MP has done that has made a significant difference in Wisbech, and our district council seems intent on investing in and developing the smaller town of March where their headquarters is situated.  

The lack of attention by those in power could be due to their comfortable majority.  

At the last election Steve Barclay was returned with a considerable 30,000 vote majority. Safe seats breed complacency.  

This was illustrated in the last Budget, when the north of England, (where many Conservative majorities are decidedly precarious), was mentioned 18 times, but our region, the East of England, wasn't mentioned a single time.  

This disproportionate allocation of available resources was laid bare, when the East of England, which has a population of six million, received just £87m in the new levelling up directive, while Scotland with a smaller population of just five million and threatening independence, was promised an incredible £1.5bn. 

In the meantime, Wisbech struggles on, surviving with a dedicated small army of volunteers working hard in the background, clearing the litter, planting the flowers, manning the museums, preserving the towns history and a whole host of other activities.  

Plus, we have a contingent of councillors trying to improve the town with welcome, but relatively small piecemeal projects such as a revamp to the market place.  

However, unless we get someone to seriously champion our town on a whole new level, I can’t see things getting any better for the residents of Wisbech, in the near future, or beyond.