WISBECH: Special report on what happened to Market Place review

CONTROVERSY once again dogs Wisbech Market Place as partial access and pay parking –the fruits of six months work by a review team- look set to be cast aside in favour of an old option re-visited. Councillor Simon King chaired the six month review into Wi

CONTROVERSY once again dogs Wisbech Market Place as partial access and pay parking -the fruits of six months work by a review team- look set to be cast aside in favour of an old option re-visited.

Councillor Simon King chaired the six month review into Wisbech Market Place, organised a charabanc outing to Ely and Spalding to see how they fared, and concluded that some form of through traffic, pay parking and increased bays for the disabled was the way forward.

How wrong he was. Editor JOHN ELWORTHY investigates the extraordinary volte face that ensued.

HE asked for volunteers but it was almost inevitable that Cllr King would end up with a committee packed with Wisbech councillors, Wisbech traders and pro car activists.

His 66 page report - Wisbech Market Place Review 2007/8- may now be unceremoniously ditched by Cabinet colleagues who reminded him that decisions on Wisbech are not the exclusive preserve of Wisbech councillors.

Cllr King, chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee, invited volunteers to his table to debate the future of Wisbech town centre.

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They stepped forward in abundance- ranging from Wisbech hotelier Jonathan Davies, Nick Fennis, of the Wisbech Market Traders Forum, Bernard Gibbs of the Wisbech Society, Councillor Roger Green, leader of Wisbech Town Council, and Richard Barnwell, chairman of regeneration group WISARD.

He also called upon a multiplicity of council and district officers who offered varying levels of expertise.

And then came the councillors including three volunteers from the town council as non voting observers. A broad mix of Fenland representatives they were not!

Councillor Jonathan Farmer, Councillor Christopher Seaton, Councillor David Wheeler, and town councillors Trevor Wright, Vivien MacRae and Neville Frusher all joined up.

Cllr Harper reminded member of Wisbech Chamber of Commerce at their annual meeting on Monday "at the end of the day decisions on this scale are not made simply by the people of Wisbech. Seventy seven per cent of Fenland is not in Wisbech."

Cllr Harper was powerless to prevent Cllr King from appointing who he liked, but admitted to me this week that he thought the make up of the group was "Wisbech heavy, one of the points we made in Cabinet. However it was beyond our reach since obviously the executive do not get involved in overview and scrutiny. They are a law unto themselves, and we can't direct them.

"Cabinet had a private meeting with the overview and scrutiny committee - you could call it a full and frank discussion. And this included the option to put pedestrianisation back into the frame."

Cllr King remembers the "most significant item" to come from the meeting - which he insists was "not at all confrontational"- was the suggestion, which he claims is supported by Cabinet, to transfer the central market area to Wisbech Town Council.

"And that's what is being investigated now," he said.

But as Cllr Harper reminded traders on Monday "at the last full public consultation eighty per cent of those consulted were in favour of pedestrianisation. From a sample of 1200 that's a pretty formidable number."

Cllr Harper promised Wisbech traders another round of consultations but a brief paper to Cabinet last month indicates a third option - of full pedestrianisation of the Market place with details provided on enforcement- is gaining ground.

He sees the current situation as a "bit of a dichotomy" since 39 of the 40 councillors on Fenland District Council are all Conservatives (ironically the independent councillor for Manea, Councillor Mark Archer, was on Cllr King's review team).

"That's the oddity I suppose," said Cllr Harper. "We're in serious control and the same people who make policy at group make decisions on the overview and scrutiny committee. However we didn't appointment the review committee- the chairman did." In fact, says Cllr King, the Overview and Scrutiny Panel appoints review teams, but some may note the semantics.

How quickly the Market Place gets resolved depends on how quickly officers lay the foundations for the new policy option. Only months ago they were dreaming up ways and means of allowing traffic into the Market Place- and the preferred option then involved through traffic from Hill Street, High Street and Union Street with two way traffic flow in high Street, and exits via Market Street or Church Terrace.

Parking would have been 'pay and display' on the Market Place, retractable bollards would have restricted traffic on the north and east side, and bays would have been given over to blue badge holders.

But then would have come enforcement. On the central market area it would be over to Central Ticketing - who handles the Horsefair- with their fees covered by the fines likely to be imposed. Additional costs, for a PCSO to enforce on street parking - at around £35,000 a year- and £10,000 of capital costs for ticket machines, would come from parking fees.

Cabinet is now being invited to consider an altogether simpler affair with very few permitted exceptions to the market and a total ban on all disabled parking within the Market Place, extra provision being made available in nearby streets. Cllr King believes his proposals are revenue neutral- the pedestrianisation plan he expects to incur high capital costs of installing barriers to the market.

Traders, shoppers, residents and commuters are now having their say but there will be a further opportunity for detailed responses once a proposal is on the table.

But ultimately Cllr Harper feels it will be down to a straight forward vote at Fenland Hall that may well decide the issue. Cllr King insists Fenland Council is only a consultee in the process and says the final decision will be made by the Fenland Traffic Management Area Joint Committee.

Technically, that may indeed be the case but the strength of feeling inside Fenland Hall suggests that the final solution will not favour cars.

n You have your say: Letters-page 17.


4,500 Blue Badge Holders within 8km radius of town centre

1993 year central square was improved and area repaved

1350 number of parking spaces close to town centre

700 parking tickets issued in Wisbech town centre last year

7.4 Daily average of parking tickets issued by Central Ticketing in Horsefair

8 Local councillors on scrutiny review team