MP Steve Barclay stuns Wisbech regeneration conference with allegations of how enterprise body is failing Fenland and even inducing companies to move
In a series of articles beginning today we will be examining astonishing claims made by MP Steve Barclay about the Greater Cambridge and Peterborough Enterprise Board (LEP). What was meant to be a vehicle for growth and opportunity is working, says the MP, but for almost everyone except those in Fenland.
Criticism by MP Steve Barclay of investment in Fenland by the Greater Cambridge and Peterborough Enterprise Board (LEP) came to a head in a 20 minute onslaught to business leaders and councillors.
His allegations stunned his audience at Wisbech Boathouse who had come together to discuss the latest chapter in the town’s regeneration: the MP alleges LEP is stalling that growth.
For months the NE Cambs MP has been putting together what amounts to a dossier of allegations against LEP including ignoring opportunities for agri tech investment in Fenland, failing to fight for and invest in the Wisbech rail bid and refusing to support an enterprise zone locally.
He also attacked LEP for encouraging a major Chatteris employer to leave the town and move to Alconbury to take advantage of business rate inducements as part of the creation of a new enterprise zone.
“A key factor in shaping which projects receive funding has been the location of the enterprise zones,” he said.
In Norfolk and Suffolk the local enterprise partnership had targeted its two most deprived areas, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, to become an enterprise zone.
“By contrast the Cambridgeshire LEP allocated its first enterprise zone to an affluent area, Huntingdon,” said Mr Barclay. “The second wave has also gone to more affluent areas around Cambridge including Northstowe, Cambourne and Waterbeach, as well as Ely.
“To date the LEP appears to have made no plans for an enterprise zone in Fenland.”
Mr Barclay said: “As a matter of policy, the LEP has targeted businesses within a 30 mile radius of the enterprise zones to encourage them to move there.
“As such it is using taxpayer money (five years free of paying business rates) to encourage businesses to leave Fenland and move to a more prosperous part of the county, Huntingdon. That is not what the policy intended.”
The MP said MMUK Flowers of Chatteris has been “encouraged” by the LEP to move to Alconbury and no help had been offered to landlords ERMS UK to backfill the 108,000 square foot building being vacated by the departure of MMUK.
Mr Barclay also accused LEP of failing to support Metalcraft of Chatteris who, despite just winning a £48 million contract from Sellafield, has twice been turned down by LEP for skills funding.
And in what could be a further blow, Mr Barclay revealed he had been told by bosses at Metalcraft that they, too, had been offered inducements to invest outside of the Fens and move to Huntingdon, a move the MP said Metalcraft bosses had told him was “bonkers!”.
He added: “I hope the LEP Board will recognise that it can and should be much more proactive in its support of Fenland, and in particular the Wisbech 2020 project and will now act to demonstrate its support for the transformation projects the area so urgently needs.”
Last night Mr Barclay released questions he has tabled to LEP ahead of a board meeting on Tuesday.
Will the LEP Board at their meeting on Tuesday January 17 agree an immediate small grant to pay for rail consultants to revise the Wisbech Rail Benefits Costs Ratio?
In order to access the £10 million of Government funding already allocated to the LEP and available to fund the next phase of the rail scheme, the BCR needs to be above 1.5. It is currently at 1.4 to 1.46 based on inflated costs and underestimated benefits.
Consultants now need to review this work to accurately cost the level crossings we need (full barriers with lights in line with the new Borders rail in Scotland), reflect the scope for cost reductions (such as designating Wisbech a community rail and adopting a similar approach to lower cost schemes like Tavistock) and to include benefits for a limited direct service to Cambridge (in line with assurances from the Rail Minister).
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to authorise the Chief Executive to request from Government part of the available £10 million allocated to fund the next phase of work (known as GRIP 3), as soon as a BCR of 1.5 or above is achieved?
Wisbech Rail has strong support from a wide range of Government Ministers including the Secretary of State for Transport who describes Wisbech as a “test case”, the Rail Minister who says it is a “critical project” and a “high priority”, and the Secretary of State for Business who has responsibility for industrial strategy who has visited and expressed his support.
There is also strong local support including from the Member of Parliament, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, and Leader of Fenland District Council. Following the decision to approve devolution in Cambridgeshire, the scheme will also be able to access new funding from the Combined Authority.
On Friday 20th January the Chief Executive of the Homes and Community Agency is visiting Wisbech, reflecting their interest in this area. As such, with widespread support, additional funding, and scope for new funding, there is a reasonable expectation that Wisbech Rail will be completed.
In the event that Wisbech Rail is not completed, DCLG has also confirmed that it has no intention to claw back any of the £10 million allocation spent on progressing Wisbech Rail.
Dualling sections of the A17
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree in principle to fund the next phase of work required to dual sections of the A47 with a high or very high BCR, using part of the £10 million allocated for Wisbech transport improvements?
The Mouchel report dated July 2014 identified sections of the A47 with high or very high BCRs. These sections of road work compare favourably (a BCR above 8) with the BCRs of other scheme funded by the LEP Board (such as Ely Bypass with a BCR of 1.5).
The money is available from the £10 million of capital already allocated to improve Wisbech transport links so this work can be progressed quickly. However if the LEP board decides not to support in principle progressing sections of the A47 in Cambridgeshire, will the LEP board set out the basis for this funding decision and why schemes with significantly lower BCRs have been funded.
Will the LEP Board request the Chief Executive to prepare a paper reviewing whether allocating the majority of the £10 million capital on minor road schemes will deliver the strategic change Fenland requires, compared with progressing Wisbech Rail and the dualling of sections of the A47 with a view to unlocking further investment?
Whilst minor road improvements around Wisbech offers certainty of completion, it will come at the price of removing this funding from progressing transformational projects in Wisbech Rail and the dualling sections of the A47. As such it risks these schemes not progressing to the stage where we can unlock further major investment, such as from a successful Garden Town bid or from uplift in house values secured by developers for re-investment in transport infrastructure.
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to set out what work it has funded since July 2014 to progress the sections of the A47 dualling which the Mouchel report identified as having a very high BCR above 8, or why it has not offered any funding?
Given that schemes will a lower BCR have progressed whilst schemes with a higher BCR benefiting Fenland have not, it would be helpful for the LEP Board to set out the basis for their investment decisions on roads.
Wisbech 2020 Project Resource
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to provide a grant and / or loan to assist Wisbech 2020 with the preparation of its bid for a Garden Town, and do so to at least to the same level of grant and /or loan provided to those developing bids in Downham Market, Norfolk?
Wisbech 2020 now needs project resource to assist with the preparation of its Garden Town bid if it is to compete nationally with other schemes. Significant progress has been made to date with far less resource than is available to other bids pitching for Garden Town status.
The LEP should assist Wisbech 2020 with project resource as it appears to have done elsewhere. This will also help unlock additional funding identified by Anglia Water, including from the Dutch Government due to the international significance of the scheme’s innovative approach to water management.
Conflicts of Interest
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to publish, as a matter of urgency, a full list of all declarations of conflicts of interest, and declarations of corporate hospitality, made by current and former members of the Board, and the date these declarations were made?
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday further agree, that if a board member has or had a personal interest linked directly or indirectly to a funding decision taken by the LEP Board, they should issue a personal statement setting out a clear chronology of events, including the date on which they first became aware of any discussions relating to their personal interest?
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday issue a statement confirming whether any member of the board has expressed concern regarding potential conflicts of interest, the date these concerns were raised, and the action taken?
Whilst the LEP board is legally constituted as a private limited company, it makes decisions regarding how significant amounts of public money are spent. As such it has a duty to act transparently as both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have made repeatedly clear, and as the public would expect.
Given the strategic importance of agri-tech to Fenland, will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to issue a specific statement setting out:
Why Fenland failed to secure the £500,000 funding for a food and drink skills hub that it was previously told would be built in Fenland?
What proportion of the £4.5m of bids approved, and those in the pipeline, are in Fenland?
Why there was a £750,000 underspend and how this was communicated, and why it is in Cambridgeshire’s interest to re-allocate it on a “location neutral” basis when Anglia LEP had no underspend?
The Cambridgeshire LEP accepts that it failed to develop a wider programme of work to support Agri-tech compared with New Anglia and Lincolnshire LEPs. It is surprising therefore that a significant underspend within Cambridgeshire will now be open to bids from outside of Cambridgeshire. Nor is it clear why the LEP failed to communicate more widely the opportunity for Fenland to bid for money that had not been allocated.
Growing Places Funding & Growth Deal Funding
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to issue a statement listing all the projects it has funded to date, the amount of capital or loan allocated, the date on which the investment decision was taken, and the district in which the recipient is based?
It is unclear from the information currently available, how Government funding to the LEP has been allocated, because all the projects supported do not appear to be listed.
Will the LEP Board agree on Tuesday to set out the projected revenue from business rates it expects to receive from the current Enterprise Zones, and how much of this future revenue has been allocated to specific schemes?
Businesses moving to Enterprise Zones do not pay business rates for the first five years. After five years the LEP area retains the business rates for the next 20 years rather than this money being transferred to Government, meaning the LEP receives the benefit.
Yet it appears that a significant proportionate of the future business rates from the Alconbury Weald Enterprise Zone has already been allocated to the A14 improvements. It is unclear therefore what allocation from the future business rates revenue, which is intended to benefit the entire LEP area, has been allocated for transport schemes benefiting Fenland, such as Wisbech Rail and dualling the A47?
Geographical scope of the Cambridgeshire LEP
Will the LEP board on Tuesday agree to consult with councils and the public in Cambridgeshire regarding the alignment of the LEP area with the new Combined Authority?
Following the decision by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough to elect a Mayor and Combined Authority, on which the LEP will be represented, it is logical to align the LEP area with the Combined Authority. Given that the majority of the LEP Board is unelected, it is reasonable to expect it to consult within Cambridgeshire and Peterborough to inform its approach.
Will the LEP Board on Tuesday agree to issue a statement clarifying why a £300,000 skills hub to help tackle modern slavery was not located in Fenland, given the area’s national leadership on this issue?
No discussion was held by the LEP with the police team leading the award winning Operation Pheasant Team (now renamed), prior to allocating funding to assist with the fight against modern slavery. It is important if this funding is to deliver value for money that the expertise of the Operation Pheasant Officers helps inform delivery of this training.
Will the LEP Board agree on Tuesday to review their current business engagement with firms in Chatteris, in particular ERMS UK and Metalcraft, and how this might be improved?
No contact has been made by the LEP with ERMS UK since January 2016, which owns the 108,000 square foot building which is soon to be vacated by MMUK Flowers.
Nor has Metalcraft received any grant funding despite the scope for expansion reflected in the direct support of Sellafield. A further 1,600 homes are planned for Chatteris, whilst the Tesco site also remains vacant, so it is reasonable to expect the LEP to be engaging with this area.
A spokesman for LEP said they would be responding to the MP’s allegations.