Minister promises ‘Wisbech will have my support’ for garden town project irrespective of outcome of East Anglian devolution deal
- Credit: Archant
Local Government Secretary of State Greg Clark pledged on a visit to Wisbech today that support for garden town status and the prospect of re-opening the rail line to March did not depend on Cambridgeshire signing up to the Chancellor’s devolution deal.
Mr Clark said: “Wisbech will have my support whatever is decided but it does make it easier if you have money under your own control to be able to invest rather than to apply for national schemes.”
Pressed on whether devolution would go ahead even if a number of Cambridgeshire councils rejected it, the minster said the Government “would not impose it”.
Mr Clark was speaking after a three hour visit to the town that included the first hour spent with council, business and community leaders addressing issues arising from the garden town initiative.
He then went on a walkabout of the town stopping off to look at the recently renovated Belfast building in Nene Quay – restored after a major fire in 2010- and then onto the town bridge to look at recent flood protection measures.
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Mr Clark stopped off in Horsefair to meet the manager Kevin Smith to hear how local initiatives had bolstered trade in the centre.
The minister argued that the geography of the proposed East Anglian devolution deal was for people to consider carefully. The agreement with the Treasury included the release of £1bn on the strength of three counties signing up to a regional deal and that’s what persuaded Chancellor George Osborne.
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“The deal that was agreed in principle was for the whole area,” he said.
Asked whether the Government would consider unpacking devolution to allow Cambridgeshire and Peterborough to go it alone, the minister was non committal.
“It was an important agreement because it got £1bn – and I am pleased it was agreed. “The case for it is strong which if you look at the size of the economy is comparable to some of the most prominent places in the rest of the country,” he said.
He also felt that extra money could come into places such as Wisbech through the devolution agreement which allowed for councils opting for an elected mayor to be able to retain business rates ahead of those parts of the country where no such deals existed.
The minister said his special advisor had visited Wisbech several times ahead of today’s visit and so he was fully aware of the challenges and issues the town faced.
He felt the way forward was to recognise that sometimes solutions are multi faceted and there was not always a single solution.
He was asked whether Wisbech deserved to be regarded as a special case for the Government and was it fair for local councils and the MP to press for that outcome.
“Every place is unique and part of my approach is to get to know places and to recognise the issues,” he said. “You need to understand them to do something about them.”
And he argued that people should see the rail link “as an investment not as a special favour to Wisbech. It is an opportunity to invest in the prosperity of our country”.
Mr Clark said he very much hoped the current feasibility study and underwritten by the local growth funding “will be positive”.
On the prospect for the rail re-opening, he said the link to March would “make more jobs available, a greater choice of jobs, higher paid jobs, and would help people who may want to work in Cambridge to live in Wisbech.”
Newcomers would bring “vitality and spending power” to the area and create investment opportunities.
Mr Clark said he was impressed by the strength of commitment to those at today’s meeting to making the garden town proposals – and other regeneration projects surrounding the Wisbech 2020 vision.
Going forward he wanted to work on the sense of optimism he had experienced during his visit.
And his parting message was to forge ahead “with determination and pull together to address problems simultaneously”.
Councillor Steve Count, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said work on Wisbech 2020 vision “started a long time before talks on devolution but whether that can accelerate it are a different matter”.
Cllr Count said: “I think these are two separate issues and whether they can be made to complement each other is something for the people to decide.”
He said he had previously argued for Wisbech to be made a “special case” and two years ago proposed changes to the county council budget to save such things as the learning centre in the town.
“To have the ear of Government up here in the Fens makes this a fantastic day,” he said.
“My concerns going forward are not with the people here today or those at Wisbech 2020 Vision meetings,” he said. “What is needed now to so see how much of the message we are getting out to the people of Wisbech?”
He felt there was “a void to be filled” as progress moved from a conceptual stage where people previously might have shown reluctance to talk about it.
He planned early talks with Fenland District Council to get more engagement with residents and businesses to show precisely what the future could look like.
“I am passionate about the Fens and I will try and give as much time as I possibly can to drive this forward,” he added.
Fenland Council leader John Clark said: ““It was a very positive visit. The Secretary of State was extremely generous with his time and obviously very keen to meet everyone and hear what we all had to say.
“We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to send our message directly to the heart of government and that can only be helpful in keeping up the momentum we are now generating.”
Cllr Clark added: “He was clearly impressed by the enthusiasm shown by everyone for the garden town concept and told us that for some time he had thought that Wisbech was one of the places in the country that had the greatest potential.
“We’re certainly confident that we got our message across. Now we’re looking to build on the success of today’s visit and work closely with the Government and all our other key partners to take this vision forward.”