Fenland Council fails the dating game test as FOUR times Chatteris firm planning incentivised switch to Alconbury snubs corporate director Gary Garford

Gary Garford (right) corporate director of Fenland Council with the then Secretary of State for Comm

Gary Garford (right) corporate director of Fenland Council with the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark MP on a visit to Wisbech. MMUK of Chatteirs snubbed Mr Garford over possible meeting. PHOTO: Steve Williams. - Credit: Archant

A multi national company caught up in an escalating row over their move from Chatteris to Alconbury –cushioned by a five year free business rates package- has FOUR times refused to meet Fenland Council directors to discuss it.

MMUK’s refusal to talk with Fenland Council is revealed in the minutes of January’s overview and scrutiny committee during follow up questioning to corporate director Gary Garford.

Councillor Fred Yeulett, the committee chairman, asked Mr Garford about meetings that had been planned with the Fenton Way company but that had previously been postponed until January.

“Gary Garford stated that MMUK has cancelled all four meetings that have been offered,” says the report. “He confirmed that he has been unable to engage with them.”

The committee decided to ask council leader John Clark and chief executive Paul Medd “to monitor the situation on behalf of Fenland”.

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MMUK is part of the global AMC group which has centres across USA and Canada, South Africa, Spain and Chile, and works with growers across 20 countries worldwide to provide products for fruit, juice and ice creams.

Its associated company MM Flowers is a cut flowers specialist, supplying major UK and European retailers

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MMUK says they are currently based in two separate buildings in Chatteris; the relocation to Alconbury Weald will enable the businesses to bring together flowers and grape teams into a modern, purpose built facility and with a footprint of 220,000 sq. ft. The new building will be one of the largest fresh produce facilities in the UK.

Andrew West, head of HR said: “It will provide us with a strong foundation to build on our reputation as one of the UK’s largest fresh produce specialists in the UK.”

The headquarters have been designed and built by Chalcroft Construction and is the first large new building to start at Alconbury Enterprise Campus and is due for completion shortly.

It is the Chalcroft connection that has raised concerns with NE Cambs MP Steve Barclay who says taxpayers’ money, in the form of reduced business rates, was being used to encourage firms to move to Alconbury Weald at the expense of other areas such as Fenland.

And he raised concerns that managing director of Chalcroft, Mark Reeve, is also chairman of the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership (LEP) that is responsible for the Alconbury Weald Enterprise Campus.

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. This is not what the policy intended.

“MMUK Flowers has been encouraged by the LEP to leave Fenland and move to Alconbury.

“On September 5, 2016 MMUK announced that Chalcroft were designing their new HQ with the principal contractor being Chalcroft.

“It is unclear whether the chairman of the LEP regarded this as a conflict of interest, given his links to this building firm.”

A spokesman for LEP said Chalcroft Construction had not received any money from it to construct buildings at Alconbury Weald and the LEP had not given any funding to MMUK to move to the enterprise zone, meaning their chairman Mr Reeve did not need to declare an interest to the board in the project.

“This was a separate commercial arrangement made between two private companies,” the spokesman said.

“All negotiations and packages for companies moving to Alconbury Weald Enterprise Campus are made by the owners and developers, Urban&Civic, and not by the LEP,” they added. “These are private, corporate arrangements made between the company and Urban&Civic.”

A spokesman for MMUK said the company would still be using its site in Chatteris, but some jobs within flower and grapes would move to Alconbury.

A spokesman for Urban&Civic, which is developing Alconbury Weald, said: “Government legislation for enterprise zones is consistent across the country and enables businesses moving into any enterprise zone up to £55,000 business rates discount for up to five years, as well as streamlined planning permission and superfast broadband.

“The level of benefits was specifically designed to support businesses to grow in their period after relocation but not encourage them to move for the sake of the benefit.”

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