The Cambridgeshire Local Enterprise Partnership over the last four years has repeatedly said that Agri-tech is a key priority particularly in Fenland. The Chair of the LEP said this again at my meeting with him on Friday 20th January 2017, commenting that he “would expect Fenland to be at the forefront of the Agri-tech scheme”.
Yet Fenland has not received a single Agri-tech grant in 2014, 2015, and 2016. In the four years since this scheme began Fenland has received just one small LEP grant for £46,500 out of a total Agri-tech budget of £3.25 million allocated by the Government to the Cambridgeshire LEP. The Chief Executive of the LEP said on Friday that this grant was made in 2013 to Law Fertilisers based near March.
Of all the districts in the LEP area, Fenland has received the lowest amount of Agri-tech grants. Enclosed below is a breakdown of what each LEP district has received.
The LEP even managed to have a £750,000 underspend in their Agri-tech budget in 2015/16 whilst still failing to allocate a single grant to Fenland.
Having attended a breakfast meeting in Wimblington on Friday morning with the President of the National Farmers Union, Meurig Raymond, the contrast between his recognition and the Government’s recognition of the huge importance of agriculture in our area and the LEP’s approach could not have been starker.
Fenland’s one small grant is dwarfed by Cambridge City, which has been awarded 12 grants at a total of £1,208,849.
Kings Lynn and West Norfolk have been awarded 10 grants at a total £ 745,474.
The Cambridgeshire LEP previously promised Fenland a £500,000 skills hub in the food and drink centre, after it rejected a separate £500,000 bid for an Agri-tech hub at Chatteris in favour of one at Soham. Yet we now learn in the last few months this has also been rejected, apparently on the grounds that Fenland businesses say they do not need it.
The Cambridgeshire LEP blame local businesses for their lack of Agri-tech funding, stating business owners either “failed to bid” or “submitted poor quality bids”, in contrast to businesses elsewhere. Given the talent and specialist expertise in many agricultural businesses locally this is simply not credible.
Nor are these concerns hindsight. In 2014 when we lost out to Soham for the Agri-tech hub, I was told this was due to the quality of the Chatteris bid. I wrote to the LEP Chair to express the need for them to work more closely with Fenland to address any concerns they had on bid quality.
Likewise on the LEP’s suggestion that there has been a lack of bids from Fenland, I wrote to the LEP in December 2015 and January 2016, and met them in the House of Commons in February 2016, on this issue. I questioned why there was no Fenland representation on their six person devolution committee and why there had been so little progress on Agri-tech. I was told an Agri-tech Conference had been arranged by the LEP for 22nd January 2016 at Wisbech Boathouse to ensure more Fenland bids were made. Yet not a single grant has resulted from this Agri-tech Conference in over a year. Why?
The lack of LEP Agri-tech funding is particularly frustrating personally, because I worked hard with my Parliamentary colleague George Freeman MP in 2013 to secure this £3.25m. We held a series of meetings with ministers and officials, including at the House of Commons between the then Leaders of Fenland Council and Cambridgeshire Council and the Science Minister David Willets. Fenland’s expertise was recognised by the Government in 2013 when they awarded the Cambridgeshire LEP specific funding.
It remains unclear why the LEP did not communicate the available underspend, the lack of awards locally, or work with award winning agricultural firms in our area who had submitted unsuccessful bids. Clearly the LEP Agri-tech conference at the Wisbech Boathouse over a year ago failed to deliver any successful bids in 2016.
When asked at our meeting on Friday how many Agri-tech bids from Fenland had been rejected by the LEP, the Chief Executive did not have that figure available – even though this is one of the two reasons we are told we have not received any grants for three years.
So the LEP says Agri-Tech has been and still their priority in Fenland, but we only received one award in four years and the least number of awards of any LEP area. And in their opinion this is the fault of our own agricultural businesses, which excel in other areas but according to the LEP fail to submit bids or do so badly.
I will update constituents in the near future on other concerns relating to the LEP following my meeting with them on Friday.