Wisbech could become ‘garden town’ with 10,000 extra homes, an enterprise zone, a retirement village and guarantees of rail and road improvements if Government agrees
An audacious bid to change the face of Wisbech – with 10,000 extra homes, a retirement village, enterprise zone, new schools and delivery of a rail link- are unveiled today.
Behind the scenes negotiations – that have included a visit to the town by a top Government adviser- could lead to the setting up of the Wisbech Development Corporation to deliver the project.
Subject to detailed negotiations and ministers agreeing up to £800,000 to fund the corporation, building work could start as early as 2019.
A briefing note sent to Fenland’s 39 councillors says the report follows on from devolution discussions taking place between representatives from across Cambridgeshire/Peterborough and Government.
Last week a Fenland Council delegation – headed by council leader John Clark and chief executive Paul Medd -attended a devolution event” to further understand what opportunities might exist through devolution.”
The briefing note says that “Fenland is playing a lead role in helping to develop the document that sets out the additional powers and funding, which the area hopes to agree with Government following future negotiations.”
Councillors will be invited to hear more “of what is being pursued, and what this might mean for Fenland.
“The main purpose of this briefing note and attachment is to draw your attention to an idea of a potential ‘Garden Town for Wisbech’.
“It must be stressed that this is still at a very early stage, with much more work required to further test the case, and potential support from Government as part of our devolution discussions, for such a bold proposal.
The proposal makes clear that in order to deliver such ambitious new housing numbers, as part of the Government’s commitment to housing we would require their full support for a range of essential infrastructure improvements i.e the rail link.”
However it emerged that a mix of partners – including Fenland District Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, the Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership and Anglian Water- has commissioned a viability study.
That work will be carried out by urban designer David Rudlin who in 2014 won the Wolfson Economics Prize for his work on re-invigorating communities across the country.
Steve Barclay, the MP for NE Cambs, accepts the creation of an hugely enlarged project dwarves both the scale and ambition of the Wisbech 2020 Vision which he co founded four years ago.
And he is delighted with the clamour by private enterprise to get involved in expanding Wisbech.
“The Government wants to see things shaped by business- regeneration must come from working with business too,” he said.
Mr Barclay said it had always been a “driving passion” of his to deliver better outcomes for people in NE Cambs and he felt “real progress is being made”.
He agreed housing was central to the project but it was vital sustainable and quality homes were built and to high standards to attract buyers.
Councillor Virginia Bucknor, who represents the Waterlees ward of Wisbech, said she was “very excited at these proposals”.
She said: “.Of course we need the infrastructure to go hand in hand with the homes – roads, schools, railway, health centres.
“We are extremely fortunate to have one of the world’s leading urban designers, David Rudlin and his specialist team at the heart of making it a success.
“We need to ensure their recommendations are not watered down by bureaucracy or developers.”
Cllr Bucknor added; “This could be a new era for Wisbech. It also needs the focus and genuine commitment and drive by the decision makers to ensure it happens and we need our local councillors to genuinely support and help drive it forward”.
Fenland District Council describes what is proposed for Wisbech is ‘a game changer’ that fits with the Government agenda of delivering new homes on a scale way and beyond that earmarked in Local Plans.
The council believes the Government’s commitment to provide “nationally significant infrastructure projects” to support new housing on the scale envisaged could lead to a commitment to re-open the Wisbech to March rail line.
And they also believe it could speed up dualling of the A47 from Thorney to Peterborough, both transport schemes opening up Wisbech and Fenland to a new breed of commuters.
With house prices in Cambridge three times those of Wisbech, the council is confident of attracting quality housing and skilled workers once transport links are improved.
The council says Fenland’s deprivation levels “are getting worse – we are now ranked the 80th most deprived local authority out of 326” where 1 is the most deprived; in 2004 the district was ranked 142nd.
“Our proposal is a new Garden Town for Wisbech, delivering 8,000-10,000 new homes,” says the report.
These would mainly be “market sale” homes for people who have been priced out of living in and around Cambridge but the council promises opportunities for local residents to take advantage of a housing boom/.
To capture local interest, the council proposes incentives for those wanting starter homes and those wanting to self build but the council insists there would be no traditional affordable rented homes.
The report insists Wisbech has the skills to work with the Cambridge Regional College and the College of West Anglia to tailor a work force ready to deliver its ‘garden town’ vision.
It also believes building a retirement village will attract those from London and the south able to release equity in their properties to enjoy country living, in more spacious surroundings and within easy access of the Norfolk coast.
Also central to the proposals is a local enterprise zone, including manufacturing start up businesses from ideas originating on the Cambridge Science Park with factories for building offsite construction homes.
Cambridgeshire County Council is also backing the proposals and looking for a massive windfall from using vast tracts of land it already owns in Wisbech for new housing.
The report says: “Our proposals could be used as model across the country for market town growth.”
WISBECH DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION
Its prime requirement would be to co-ordinate planning issues to include bringing together land owners including not only the county council and private companies and individuals but also a “significant” amount owned by the Church Commissioners.
The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) would seek special powers from the Secretary of State to ensure delivery of the overall scheme “and deal with planning approval for the Wisbech Garden Town”.
A governance body could be created locally made up of the HCA, businesses and seats for local members.
A limited liability partnership would be created “to ensure the speed of delivery is achieved,” says the council report.
A 10 point guide to the impact of the scheme on the wider community
1: New transport links would drive forward investment and tackle deprivation
2: National housing growth targets would be supported
3: Housing pressure in and around Cambridge would be eased
4: Better links on the east west corridor would have a wider economic advantage.
5; Major retailers would be attracted to the town
6: Local jobs for local people through construction skills training
7: Significant investment would come to the area
8: The Government would bolster tax receipts through business rates and the council would benefit from the New Homes Bonus
9: It would become a model for other towns to follow
10: House prices locally would increase but these would “stabilise Cambridge basin prices, which have reached the same levels as central London”.
The HCA described the initial proposals as “sound and well thought out”, a view shared by the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). Its chief executive Neil Darwin has given it an “in principle” nod subject to board approval.
The county council also says it is working on boosting transport links to Wisbech and Jackie Sadek, special adviser to Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has been to Wisbech.
Fenland Council says “she supports our approach”.
Fenland Council says its commitment to growth in Wisbech is conditional on Government investment, notably rail and road infrastructure.
Central is the re-opening of the rail link to March and onwards to Ely and Cambridge, creating a travel time into the city of 45 minutes.
The estimated £111million cost has been endlessly debated in recent years with viability assessments and Government funding allowing the scheme to be progressed through a series of appraisals.
Fenland Council also believes postponed rail improvements at Ely need to be carried out as soon as possible to offer certainty of possible commuting times.
And there is also the not so little matter of finding an estimated £430 million to improvement connectivity to Peterborough by upgrading the A47 to Thorney, to the north east of Wisbech.
The council also wants £6 million funding for a college to develop “smart life modern methods of construction”.
Once a limited liability partnership is put in motion, a central Government funded development corporation with a team of six staff will be in place to deliver the scheme.
Wisbech 2020 Vision
Set up in 2012 and launched in January 2013, it offered a 29 point ‘action plan’ to begin the regeneration of the town.
• A further £6million investment for the College of West Anglia with new facilities that opened last September
• Wisbech Market Town Transport Strategy developed and adopted by Cambs County Council
• Successful first-round bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £2million to improve the High Street.
• Operation Pheasant’s award-winning success in tackling migrant exploitation, rogue landlords and problems with Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)
* Large part of the Nene Waterfront Site sold to local developer which will create 70 homes, including 24 affordable homes
* Creation of a new horticultural skills centre