Sensational vote by Fenland Council could see town council take control of Wisbech Market Place

AN extraordinary decision by Fenland District Council is set to pave the way for ownership of the Market Place in Wisbech to switch to Wisbech Town Council.

AN extraordinary decision by Fenland District Council is set to pave the way for ownership of the Market Place in Wisbech to switch to Wisbech Town Council.

It will mean Wisbech people will get the chance to decide the future of their market place after Fenland District Council agreed last night to open talks on handing it over to the town council.

Weeks of secret talks paved the way for a speedy resolution of the decade long battle over traffic control on the market place with the district agreeing in principle to hand over ownership to the town council.

In one stroke it means the district will be free of the conflict that’s raged over how to end traffic congestion on the market place and will allow the town council to implement their own ideas and proposals.

Fenland will give some financial support but regulating the market, including running the twice weekly markets, could pass to the town council.

“It will be up to the town council to negotiate with the county council to resolve the problems,” said Council leader Alan Melton.

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“The ball is firmly in the court of the town council. I listened to the crescendo of criticism over this issue- it is right that the people of Wisbech now get the chance to decide what’s best for them.”

He added: “Local, local, local. That’s the mantra of the coalition Government, and now Wisbech can be among the first to benefit.”

Shifting of responsibility and ownership of Wisbech Market Place to the town council may prove to be a master stroke by Fenland Council Leader Alan Melton.

“This is an issue that has dogged successive administrations of this council since 1989,” he told a startled meeting of Fenland Council as he unveiled the principles of the transfer.

It was not a climb-down by the district council nor was it an admission of getting things wrong, he emphasised, but recognition of the coalition Government’s call for “services and public assets to be administered by the lowest tier of local government wherever practical”.

Cllr Melton in one move has broken the deadlock on the market place’s future, staved off a possible revolt by Wisbech councillors, and in the long term challenged those who supported partial pedestrianisation but some parking to make it happen.

Wisbech Town Council has long favoured this plan, first hatched up by former district councillor Ann Carlisle, and now they may have the chance to make it work.

Fenland Council will give the town council up to �25,000 (money originally for the scheme) to commission a traffic management survey and after that, if all agree, a deal will be signed transferring ownership.

Cllr Melton revealed that whilst Cabinet and council had been debating various options, he was in talks with Wisbech councillor Jonathan Farmer to broker a deal for handing over the market to the town council. He picked his chosen councillor well for it was Cllr Farmer who had long argued the legitimacy of Fenland’s ownership, believing the local government act of 1974 had never effectively given it to them in the first place.

With allotments and the town hall previously handed over to the town council, Cllr Melton saw the market place as part of the same move towards local accountability.

“I know that Wisbech town councillors are up for it, well so are we,” said Cllr Melton.

Talks will now take place with the county council to seek their support since they will be expected to contribute to whatever scheme is eventually adopted since they own the access roads through to the market.

At the same meeting Cllr Melton also announced he was scrapping the controversial �75,000 scheme to move the Wisbech taxi rank from Horsefair.

He won support for a traffic survey instead which will recommend safety measures but said future debates must look wider and include the positioning not just of the taxi rank but also of the bus station.

“Members, traders and the population must be involved in this debate, personal prejudices must be left at the door,” he said.

Former town council leader Roger Green, a district councillor who seconded both of tonight’s recommendations, was pleased with the outcome of talks on the future of the market place.

He told me afterwards: “I know it’s been a bone of contention with Wisbech councillors who feel quite often that decisions are taken by councillors who don’t come from Wisbech and then decide our future,” he said.

“”We are gradually regaining the family jewels that were taken away from us, starting with handing back of the town hall and then the allotments. It is a natural progression.

“This proposal by Alan was too good an opportunity to turn down, now let’s get round a table and see if we can reach a decision.”

Also buoyant after the meeting was Cllr Farmer, who has long advocated control passing back to the town council of the market place and after being “initially suspicious” is now firmly behind the proposals.

He told me: “My view, which obviously had to be put on the back burner, was that we owned it anyway,” he said.

“When Alan first mentioned this to me I was quite excited by the possibilities. I think people will approve of the idea of it becoming a local issue rather than a Fenland wide issue.”

Cllr Farmer said it was not yet a done deal because of the legal processes “and I’ll believe it once the final dot is on the transfer document. I do believe, however, we can bring more variety and interest to the market as a result.”

Earlier in the meeting Councillor Simon King had presented a petition to the council urging Fenland to re-consider its proposals that would have made the market place substantially pedestrian only.

In less than a fortnight he traders had collected 3,000 names on the petition in support for the option to allow for only partial pedestrianisation whilst giving vehicle access at certain times and access for blue badge holders.

That petition now seems superfluous in light of the council’s later decision but its implementation will need the co-operation of Cambridgeshire County Council who may, however, share Fenland’s view and be happy to see a speedy resolution to the issue.

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