We could all do with a pandemic pick-me-up and June hit the ground running with terrific news from the Combined Authority Board.
More than a pick-me-up, it’s a big step forward. Board members gave unanimous and very enthusiastic approval for our region’s market towns to apply for a share of a whopping £13.1 million to help turn their masterplans to reality.
Eleven unique communities - Chatteris, Ely, Huntingdon, Littleport, March, Whittlesey, Wisbech, St Ives, St Neots, Soham and Ramsey – are in our Market Towns Programme. Each has created a masterplan of priorities they need to create growth. These places have a fascinating past, and, if I have my way, a supercharged future, thriving again as social and shopping hubs, tourist destinations, and entrepreneurial hotspots for many of the livewire and agile-working businesses of tomorrow.
It’s no secret that development of the market towns - and of the rail and bus services, along with roads like the A10 and A47, that should link them fluently and just don’t - has been a top priority for me since the day I was elected Mayor.
Mind you, I have to shout above the ever-demanding North of England to get the message heard in Westminster that we, too, have ‘left-behind’ towns under their noses, right here in ‘affluent’ Cambridgeshire.
The truth is, there can be no UK ‘levelling up’ without levelling for places like the Eleven, the very backbone of Cambridgeshire and England. Investors are disproportionately attracted to great conurbations, but, however crucial Cambridge and Peterborough are to us, the county of Cambridgeshire is far more than a tale of two cities.
For starters, more people live in our market towns than live in Peterborough or Cambridge. A third of our Combined Authority population, or one person in every three, lives in the market towns, with nearly as many again living in the rural areas and villages surrounding them.
But that population is ageing. Added to decades of under-funding at best, harsh deprivation at worst, the market towns also face declining high streets, unwanted reliance on cars, and such a loss of in-town jobs that many people of working-age must commute miles to jobs elsewhere.
And now there is Covid-19 to pile on the pressure.
The fallout can’t be over-stated. Covid-19 is expected to produce lasting changes in behaviour – less use of public transport, altered shopping and socialising patterns, more home and agile working, and greater need for digital connectivity and mobile coverage. We’ve doubled the market town funding on offer to help them adapt – because, as well as priorities in their Masterplans, they’ll need to create new cycleways and footpaths for ‘active travel’ and respond to the changed use of community and commercial space.
But every cloud…..
As their name says, ‘market towns’ were founded on trade and enjoyed enormous prosperity in past centuries. They can do so again. My passionate objective is to help them bounce back – and that means seizing opportunity where we find it.
One of the reasons for market town decline has been the fact they are poorly connected. With the better rail and road links I’m working for, that won’t be the case. And with more place-centred development, people may be able to work, rest and play exactly where they live.
Mediaeval days saw the flight to the cities; in the future, there may be flight back out. Covid-19 has shown us that modern businesses can set up on any fen or laptop, and many workers can work without a workplace. Covid has also given us time to reflect on the value and quality of life. What do we want and where do we want to do it? Bizarrely, the post-Covid future may be brighter for our beautiful market towns, with their unique heritage and rural settings, than we could have imagined a year ago.
My mission is to double Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s economic output over the next twenty years. But that inclusive growth won’t happen if our market towns can’t be helped to muscle up their micro economies so they can really compete
We’ve got a world class First Eleven. Let’s level up their field.