Councillors clash over why ‘impoverished town’ of Wisbech falling behind rest of county indeed much of the country

A funding bid has been put into the Heritage Lottery Fund Townscape Heritage programme, as part of a

A funding bid has been put into the Heritage Lottery Fund Townscape Heritage programme, as part of an exciting project that looks to improve the buildings in the High Street area of Wisbech. - Credit: Archant

It took an independent councillor – and from Cambridge- to turn the spotlight on deprivation in Wisbech.

Cambridgeshire County Council devolution debate:

Cambridgeshire County Council devolution debate: - Credit: Archant

Councillor John Hipkin did so with a sweeping attack on an “impoverished town” out of kilter with the riches of Cambridge itself.

“Why is a councillor from Cambridge chiefly concerned about Fenland?” he asked. “Because this is a county out of balance.”

Proposing a motion highlighting deprivation levels and calling for greater emphasis on schools, roads and renewing backing for re-opening the Wisbech to March rail line, his motion passed unanimously.

He painted a “stark picture” of Fenland which has seen worsening deprivation in the past 12 years – indeed he said there was only one local authority worse than Fenland Council on the index of multiple deprivations.

He argued the index was the “most definitive” guide to poverty, jobs, education, crime, health, accessing better services and the environment – both indoors, i.e. state of housing, and outside, i.e. pollution levels.

Waterlees, he said, was “arguably one of the most deprived wards in the whole of the country”.

Most Read

He went on to describe the “sense of hopelessness which is indescribably saddening” and pointed out that only 22 per cent of children in Fenland attending good or outstanding secondary schools. In the south of the county that figure was 91 per cent.

Fenland children were on a journey where they start of rather hopefully (he pointed out primary schools had a better record) but through adolescent stages education progressively got worse.

Re-opening the rail line would revolutionise Fenland, he said, create jobs, see incomes rise and see a growth in housing.

Councillor Paul Sales said: “The tragedy here is that for so long people of Fenland have been ill served by the Conservatives with all of the seats on the district council and they achieved nothing to improve the lot of the people they represented- that’s the tragedy of this and I hope we can do something.”

Councillor Paul Clapp said: “Enough is enough – we have seen enough people leaving Wisbech; lets help people get into work “

Councillor John Clark, who is also leader of Fenland Council, said Cambridge was an affluent city and he would “like to see some flow to Fenland. This type of deprivation needs addressing.”

He felt much was being done – such as the garden town initiative – and he hoped the motion did not end up being “hot air”.

Councillor Gordon Gillick said he lives in the centre of Wisbech and cited problems with wages as one issue: his daughter once got paid £12 an hour for a seasonal job packing sausages and others now do this for £6 an hour “and the farmers are coining it- they are as guilty as hell.”

In an area where he said farming 100 acres “can make a man relatively wealthy” he said local seasonal workers had been replaced by cheaper Eastern European workers who he “didn’t blame for coming” but they did affect wage rates locally.

He said the centre of Wisbech was a problem where with large numbers of Eastern European shops “and people like me are leaving.”

Cllr Gillick spoke of his “unease” at finding young English people unable to read or write or get work and living “in a situation of hopelessness. They often live in hostels – that make money for hedge funds- but in Wisbech it is almost impossible for these young people to be educated. Our schools have 35 per cent foreign kids – ours sit with arms folded while the educational system looks after guests – as we do in this country.”

The UKIP councillor said: “The situation is so dire and as for turning it into a garden town, a good third of the town is propped up. It looks like its’ been in a war zone, falling down, burnt out buildings on the North Brink and they can’t even trace the Chinese owners.”

He also claimed there were many migrants “living in bushes, on the bank at back of my house, sleeping there, not working and only here for the benefits”.

He added: “One near me was just banged up for endeavouring to screw driver old ladies for their purse. And we have had eight murders in Wisbech. It is a desperate situation.”

Councillor Ralph Butcher said he agreed there was deprivation but this wasn’t true of the whole of Fenland which by and large “is a good place to live. The way some people talk you would think it is a third world country; it’s not.”

Council leader Steve Count suggested it was time to “to talk about things that are right and advantages that are out there”. He spoke of the investment in Awdry House, the College of West Anglia and, if devolution was to happen, the possibility of the proximity of a university at Peterborough. He described the latter as a “game changer”.

Councillor Mathew Shuter rebutted the idea farming was cash rich: “most farms out there are losing money”. Wheat values had halved in four years and other crops were at break even.

Farms had tried to employ local people “but there are a lot of people who do not want to do that work. Without Eastern Europeans the crops would rot in the field.”

Councillor Sam Hoy said that in Wisbech it was not just about money since Waterlees had had money poured into it with the community centre and a play park.

She believed the Thomas Clarkson Academy “has failed children in Wisbech for years and years and under this authority it was allowed to continue. Thank God it is finally turning round.”

She said it would be wrong “to play divide and rule like UKIP” and make issues political.

Cllr Hoy also refuted the charge that about wages since “it is illegal not to pay the minimum wage. It’s the law.”

“While we continue this racist rhetoric we won’t get anywhere – we need to build a strong community in Wisbech not divide it

“Why would you want to live in town when everyone runs it down?”

And she said only shop in the town – Cooks the butcher- was propped up and not a third as alleged.

People, she said, should get their facts right.

Summing up Cllr Hipkin reminded councillors America was built on immigration and he felt it “slightly insulting talking about Poles, Latvians, etc as if they have no aspirations.”

They were, he argued, possibly the high achievers of the future “and maybe by their example and initiative help all of us to think more optimistically of the future”.


Embrace and promote policies for the regeneration of the most deprived parts of Cambridgeshire on an equal footing to those designed to stimulate the growth of the more prosperous parts of the county

Expedite capital projects, such as the Wisbech to Cambridge rail link, which will do much to connect comparatively isolated market towns and villages in Cambridgeshire to those areas of the county where employment opportunities are greater

Resolve that as the county’s business plan gets under way, the council will be especially mindful and give special weight in their deliberations to the impact proposed measures will have upon the county’s most disadvantaged communities.