Just after noon today the Government announced a further £37.62 million of funding for the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough (LEP) area, including an Enterprise Zone which it stated should be in the north of the county. The press note goes even further, adding to “the north in areas such as Fenland”. This signal could not be clearer to Fenland to bid for this Enterprise Zone and to link it to the Wisbech Rail project, on which I will provide a further update date next week.
Given that in the last round of funding the Government said it wanted to prioritise rural areas for Enterprise Zones, and yet the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) ignored this and allocated the second Enterprise to Cambridge having given the first one to Huntingdon, it is now third time lucky for a Fenland bid. The Government has clearly indicated its intention that the Enterprise Zone should be located in the north, and last time said its preference was for an Enterprise Zone in a rural area, so both now apply to Fenland which is even named checked.
In Parliament yesterday I met with both the Secretary of State for Local Government Sajid Javid MP (pictured), and the Local Government Minister Andrew Percy MP, who are responsible for allocating this money to Local Enterprise Partnerships. I discussed with both Ministerial colleagues my concerns regarding the LEP’s lack of funding to Fenland in the previous two rounds, governance and conflicts of interest issues. I was given reassurance that whilst the amount of Government money is announced today, it will not be released by the Department for Local Government until April. This allows time for the concerns I have raised to be followed up, together with some matters still to be published. It is clear that the one page statement issued last Friday by the LEP is inadequate.
The £37.62 million awarded to Cambridgeshire today includes £7 million for strategic transport projects (two obvious schemes for consideration need to be progressing Wisbech Rail and dualling sections of the A47) and £6.4 million for skills (which bodies like the College of West Anglia should be central to delivering as should fenland businesses like Metalcraft who have such a strong record on apprenticeship training).
A further £12.8 million has been announced for innovation and regeneration, with the aim of “spreading the benefit of the Cambridge Phenomenon” and expanding the Agri-Tech Programme. Again Fenland District Council should be pushing at an open door with the LEP as a key area for programmes within this part of the funding package, with businesses in March and Whittlesey capitalising on their existing rail connections to Cambridge if we are to spread this growth beyond Cambridge as the Government seeks.
I have also previously highlighted how we have received just one Agri-Tech grant in four years, and that was linked to the Soham scheme by family connection, so the expansion of the Agri-Tech funding should also be fertile territory for Fenland businesses. Questions regarding the governance of the Agri-Tech sub-committee remain to be answered, so it is unclear whether our bids for this new funding will be hampered until these are clarified.
Today’s announcement also includes £8.72 million for Housing. Given that the Homes and Communities Agency has just seconded a very senior member of staff to work with the Wisbech 2020 initiative, who I met with in Parliament on Tuesday, again this part of the funding pot should be a key focus for Fenland bids.
Tomorrow the LEP is holding a Question Time event in Huntingdon – it is hardly a surprising location for them to choose given the LEP seems to prioritise funding to this district. I hope many Fenland Councillors will attend this Question Time to get answers on why our district has received so little to date from the LEP, and how this will change with today’s third round of funding. This will also help inform any questions planned for a future Fenland District Council Scrutiny Hearing with the LEP (assuming this is planned to learn from the LEPs responses on the two previous rounds so any mistakes are not repeated).
I have asked Chief Executive, Paul Medd and other officers at Fenland District Council to publish their full list of pipeline projects for this Government funding now that the amounts available have been announced in Parliament, so that we can work together to ensure our fair share from each section of the Growth Deal Third Round programme.