The Cambridgeshire Local Enterprise Partnership which allocated millions of pounds of taxpayers money, but has given little to Fenland, yesterday claimed in a statement that its own lack of investment in our area was not their fault and instead blamed Fenland District Council.
It made a host of remarkable allegations, saying that the council’s bid for a Agri-tech hub had lost out to a bid from Soham because “the Fenland proposal, by comparison, was underdeveloped, lacked commercial engagement, and had less secure buy-in from the sector”.
This hub was worth half a million pounds in direct grant, but in practice was worth much more. Already the Soham site has received further funding, and it will also create spin-off benefits for businesses nearby.
The LEP further allege that an even bigger opportunity was lost to Fenland when the first Enterprise Zone in Cambridgeshire was located at Alconbury, and that this was also the fault of Fenland Council. They say the application failed two of the three clear criteria (for sites that were ready to deliver, and sites that the market would respond to quickly), stating “the proposal from Fenland did not meet the required tests under points 2 and 3”. In other words our bid never had a chance because it was flawed from the start.
In a third allegation in the LEP statement they say our area also lost out from the opportunity to bid for a Food Enterprise Zone, because the council refused to accept a key criteria as “it was clearly stated that the Council could not accept a Local Development Order” and that all successful applications had done so.
A fourth allegation blames Fenland District Council for the delay on progressing the Wisbech Rail scheme, the A47 dualling, and the lack of grant funding for strategy development work for Wisbech 2020. It is suggested no decision will be taken for another six months until Fenland submit a report in June 2017. Yet this seems odd as the report from Fenland District Council being prepared for June, as I understand it, does not focus on Wisbech Rail or the A47 and instead looks at minor road schemes and roundabouts around Wisbech.
Bizarrely, in the same statement attacking Fenland Council the LEP say that they are accountable because they answer to a number of bodies, in particular to local authorities including Fenland Council.
In fact the LEP name four bodies to whom they are accountable. They say they are accountable to the County Council – even though in the same statement they dispute the serious allegations made by Cllr Count earlier this week as Leader of that County Council.
Then they say they are accountable to a Leaders Committee of District Councils including Fenland, whilst saying it is Fenland’s fault it has not secured investment.
They also say they are accountable to Local Authority Scrutiny Committees, including Fenland’s. So will Fenland’s Scrutiny Committee now invite the LEP Chair to come and explain why he feels their council was to blame? For Fenland councillors making this decision, the LEP say “”this request is always met”.
Finally, the LEP says it is accountable to scrutiny by Government, and in particular, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). In the interest of transparency, I should point out that this week in addition to my duties as Treasury Whip, I was appointed the Government Whip responsible for the BEIS Department.
So on the one hand the LEP say the lack of investment is not their fault and Fenland District Council is to blame, and in the same statement they say they are accountable to Fenland District Council.
These allegations are important not just because of the large sums of investment Fenland has missed out on in recent years from the LEP.
It also matters hugely to the future, and in particular the new Mayor and Combined Authority and how funding is allocated following devolution.
It also matters to future funding from the LEP. An announcement is expected shortly of the next round of Government money (round 3), and the LEP will decide which schemes receive the millions from Government in this announcement. Alongside this funding, the LEP will also allocate over the coming years a further £200 million from business rates funding from its Alconbury and Cambridge Compass Enterprise Zones.
Another reason why this matters is our ability to secure an Enterprise Zone for Fenland later this year. The LEP and Fenland council officials are now due to meet on 8th February to discuss this.
Paul Medd, as the Chief Executive of Fenland District Council, receives I understand, all the board papers from the LEP each month. So it seems unlikely that this explanation for rejecting Fenland Council bids was given at the time to the LEP Board.
Either no explanation was given by the LEP when Fenland bids were rejected and no explanation was asked for, or the LEP set out its concerns each time and Fenland repeated its mistakes, or the LEP are only now making these allegations to pass-the-buck to Fenland Council.
Mr Medd in addition to being Fenland Council’s Chief Executive, is also the interim Chief Executive of the Combined Authority. On the board of the Combined Authority is the LEP. So this needs to be resolved.
Did bids fail because the LEP thought they were inadequately prepared as they now claim, or did the council submit them correctly but the LEP rejected them unreasonably?
Yesterday the LEP confirmed that Fenland can submit an application for a Enterprise Zone, and that officials from the council will meet on 6th February. Yet given the disdain in which the LEP appears to hold previous bids from Fenland, how do we know they will not reject future bids on the same basis?
The statement from the Chairman of the LEP Mark Reeve is a clear attack of Fenland District Council officers who prepared these bids, and seems to allege incompetence with the bids submitted. This has serious implications for future bids.
Mr Reeve’s statement makes clear his view that Fenland’s bids were flawed. He also says he is accountable to Fenland, as one of his Local Authorities. Mr Medd needs to clarify whether he accepts Mr Reeve’s criticism of his officials? If not, both men cannot be right.