The Next Big Thing?
The Wisbech 2020 Summit today was very slick. It was well attended. But I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much of the Wisbech 2020 stuff left.
Now to be fair, quite a lot of the issues people raised, years ago, when we first started doing Wisbech 2020, have been dealt with. Flood defences improved. Constantine House renovated. £1.9Million pound for Town Centre rejuvenation. More jobs, less unemployment. Better community cohesion. These things have broadly all happened.
But the body of today’s meeting was about the Wisbech Garden Town proposals. In fact, Wisbech 2020 has apparently been completely hijacked by the Garden Town proposals. That’s fine – the garden town would certainly be a game changer if it went ahead, so perhaps it being brought under the 2020 umbrella makes perfect sense?
What has worried me from the start and continues to worry me is the attitude of some people that a development of 12,000 new houses – 22,000 more people – is automatically a ‘good thing’. Some people seem to think we should be cheering and saying “bring it on” to this proposal alone. I don’t believe that argument stacks up.
First of all, all but doubling the size of the town is a big decision by anybody’s standards. While a population of 50,000 people would certain bring with it some benefits, it would also bring with it some negatives. I would suggest that without any knowledge of who will be buying those homes, we can at best say that this policy is neutral.
Now the proposals come with a lot of new “infrastructure”; schools, medical; some new roads – but that’s not a bonus either. That is what the additional 22,000 people would require for their own use. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table for the Town as a whole, it simply keeps the playing field even.
A huge new country park with lakes and water features sounds nice, and would certainly bring an appeal to the Town that it presently lacks. But a park like that comes with costs attached also, and eats up a lot of land that is presently being used for other things. It’s not cost neutral.
The big selling point, the thing which makes the whole plan hang together as potentially economically viable – is the new Wisbech Train Link. Without a train link, it all breaks down. The connection to Cambridge to allow the two areas to support one another’s weaknesses with one another’s strengths is gone. The “diverse mix of new residents” becomes much more of a challenge without a quick commuter route.
Let’s tell it like it is. This “Wisbech Garden Town” is not a gift to us. It is a large housing development the Government would like to see happen in order to help them keep their house-building plans on track. It’s a development nobody else in the County particularly wants. Wisbech is not an “easy touch” and should not be treated as one. It MAY be (may, not will) that the residents of our Town would accept a huge change like this if it came with the necessary infrastructure to allow us to really make a go of it. It may be that this is the way to return Wisbech to its former heights of prosperity and to bring in investment, businesses and thereby more jobs. But if the Powers That Be think that the people of Wisbech will accept this huge development without the jewel in the crown – the rail link – alongside a raft of other infrastructure investments – I think they are sorely mistaken.
Steve Barclay MP said so too. When question time came and I made the point that I did not feel we could even begin to sell this to Wisbech residents without the Rail Link as a given, he was in total agreement. In fact he instructed the planners to take any idea of a “Plan B” off the table entirely. Which was a strong and helpful position.
The speakers today all felt that the Garden Town idea had public support and very little opposition. I think that was a very optimistic view. It’s early days, after all. If the Powers That Be think they will face no opposition, they should wait until the residents of the villages and areas that will be the recipient of thousands of new houses get wind of how much it will change their home environment. I suspect they will find there is rather more opposition than they expect. What they need is a gathering point, a selling point around which supporters can rally.
The Rail Link is the key. I’m not saying that the Rail Link makes it a certainty. You can’t utterly change the face of a Town without getting at least a broad agreement from its residents. Or you should not, anyway. A change this big needs a real consultation, a genuinely open ear and open mind. Not one of these sham: “We ask you some leading questions that all result in you saying what we want to hear” type deals.
We are not the beggars here, we are in a strong position. We should stand, polite but firm, and make clear what we need for this to even make the starting line. There should be none of this “how about a tram” or “what about if we did a bendy guided bus” nonsense. Government’s bluff should be called. Network Rail should be pressured by senior politicians to take a different view.
We should be prepared to think about doing this, in a sensible and well-planned way, in keeping with the excellent plans put forward by the design team. But not without first getting the consent of the people. And not without a Rail Link, the agreement for that etched in stone, Government seal stamped clearly upon it.