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£2.85m windfall for Fenland Council they tried to keep quiet

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For the first time we can shed light on the size of an unexpected cash windfall that dropped into the lap of Fenland District Council – and how some of the money was spent.

Quizzed by opposition councillors in December, council leader Chris Boden refused to confirm the amount or spending plans of  “surplus funds” received from Cambridgeshire Horizons Ltd.

This was the organisation, now dormant, that was originally set up by Cambridgeshire councils in 2004 to ‘grow’ the county.

But when Government funding for it ceased, so too did Cambridgeshire Horizons – and for 12 years it has sat on a multi-million pound sum that has now been re-distributed back to local participating councils.

Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambs District Council promptly revealed how her council’s windfall would be spent. She announced last July the formation of a £2million “growth and infrastructure fund to support sustainable projects that improve the quality of life for residents.

Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambs District Council promptly revealed how her council’s windfall would be spent. She announced last July the formation of a £2million “growth and infrastructure fund to support sustainable projects that improve the quality of life for residents.

East Cambridgeshire District Council leader Anna Bailey was first to announce the windfall – and promptly commissioned a “growth and infrastructure” fund to distribute it. Her council’s £2m has since been allocated, spread across a vast array of community groups and projects.

But it has taken a Freedom of Information request to confirm the amount Fenland District Council received – and how a small portion of it has been spent.

In December opposition spokesperson Cllr Mike Cornwell quizzed Cllr Boden and asked how much Fenland had received. And why had they not publicised it.

Cllr Boden began by explaining that “I was instrumental in ensuring monies lying unused for the best part of nine years were made available to the constituent councils”.

He said he was also the individual who proposed the way the money was distributed “and for Fenland that is quite favourable”.

He said the council received a total of £3.35m in total, of which £1.05m will need to be repaid over 25 years to the Department of Transport.

That left some “£2.3m or available for various specified objectives, consistent with objectives of Cambridgeshire Horizons”.

Freedom of Information

He said Fenland had ended up in the same position as East Cambs Council.

But he was pushed by Cllr Cornwell as to “why did east Cambs Council get all the publicity?”.

Cllr Boden replied: “We are not in the habit of always necessarily putting out publicity which I have to say some members might think is party political.

“We achieved what we needed to achieve, no need to publicise it, but will spend it wisely.”

But a Freedom of Information request – submitted by former council leader Alan Melton – has shed light on the funding.

And it has revealed that the council has not just the £2.3m referred to by Cllr Boden but in fact is sitting on £2.691m after deducting £150,000 it has already spent.

“Several years ago, Fenland District Council was a founder member of Cambridgeshire Horizons and was represented at board level by the Leader of the Council,” Mr Melton said in a preamble to his questioning.

“Cambridgeshire Horizons made significant investments using up to £2billion of Government funding.

“It was always agreed that when Horizons was wound up and its mission(s) completed, there would be significant dividends to the partner councils.

“I understand this dividend has now been paid.

Q1. Has Fenland District Council received the dividend?

RESPONSE: Cambridgeshire Horizons Ltd has not been wound up and no dividend has been paid. However, most of the surplus funds from the company have now been returned to its constituent shareholders.

Q2. If it has been paid, how much did Fenland DC receive?

RESPONSE:  The surplus funds that FDC received totalled £3.891m of which £1.05m is earmarked for the A14 improvement work. This will be passed over to the DfT.

Q3. Again, if it has been paid, where is the money?

RESPONSE: The money is sitting in the council’s reserves and is separately identified in the statement of accounts for 21-22.

Q4. If the money is being used for community use, how is it allocated?

RESPONSE:  Excluding the A14 contribution the reserve on 31st March 2022 totalled £2.691m and is not allocated at present. The funding came with strict criteria for its future use.

Q5. If the money has been allocated, can you please let me have a list of identified projects?

RESPONSE: Excluding the A14 contribution at the 31st March 2022,  £150k had been utilised to fund a levelling up bid for the district.

The £150,000 appears then to have been utilised for the unsuccessful levelling up fund (LUF) bid for a £1.7m visitor centre and improved link to the Market Place, Wisbech.

Café inside Wisbech Castle proposed in masterplan unveiled as part of Fenland Council ‘levelling up’ fund bid to Government

The proposal formed part of a £14m package of three schemes that were bundled together when the council submitted its bid.

The scheme included £2.6m worth of improvements to the old Market Place, street greening and public realm enhancements linking the town centre to the Nene waterfront.

Also included was £9.7m for a green skills centre for the College of West Anglia.

Fenland Council Cabinet was reminded that up to £2m of match funding was being sought by the college from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA) through its recycled local growth fund bidding process.

“This funding forms the necessary match funding required of a LUF bid. Total LUF bid value is £12,027,489 and CAPCA match funding, £ 2,000,000. Total project value: £14,027,489,” Cabinet was told.

The castle element formed part of a wider masterplan for the town that was commissioned by the council.

Many of its ambitions are long term but the consultants “envisaged that a new visitor centre with main entrance, cafe, orientation and information point and facilities will be located at the north edge of the Castle Gardens”.

Phil Hughes, head of leisure services, explained that the £14m worth of projects were developed following master planning work from a group of consultancies that developed a masterplan for Wisbech that included shorter term projects as well as longer term visions.

He said the success of the March Future High Street (FHSF) bid had demonstrated that with the “right professional input, stakeholder engagement and political prioritisation, the council is capable of pulling together a credible and compelling business case for investment”.

Ahead of preparing for the LUF bid, he said the council made some upfront investment in scheme development “to create oven ready bids.

“This work was necessary in order to develop a cohesive and well developed LUF bid.

“Working with a group of experienced consultants led by Norr, a spatial masterplan for Wisbech was developed”.

Mr Hughes said the masterplan contains short, medium, and longer-term projects and offered potential projects for cabinet to select for the next LUF bid.

However, when details of the levelling up fund bids were revealed in January, only Peterborough, with £48m to enhance the station area of the city, was successful from the Cambridgeshire bids submitted.

Whilst Fenland Council continues to refuse to explain where the rest of its Horizons windfall is earmarked, residents of East Cambridgeshire are celebrating success in securing their portion.

Cllr Bailey, leader of East Cambs District Council promptly revealed how it would be spent.

She announced last July the formation of a £2million “growth and infrastructure fund to support sustainable projects that improve the quality of life for residents.

“The money utilises money the council has received from Cambridgeshire Horizons.

“Cambridgeshire Horizons is a company that holds historical funds, originally received from central Government, to deliver projects that support growth in the county.”

Working with other council leaders, Cllr Bailey said she had been able to negotiate funds from Cambridgeshire Horizons “to benefit East Cambridgeshire specifically.

“We know there are lots of fantastic ideas out there that with a little bit of funding can deliver some really good and sustainable benefits for our local residents.

“This fund is providing those organisations, clubs, or parish councils with the opportunity to make that happen.

“We are really open-minded around how the money is spent, providing it’s for a capital project that supports the growth of the district and benefits local residents.”

Applicants were told they needed to match fund a minimum of 10 per cent of the total project costs and should commit to an environmentally friendly approach.

By November she was able to reveal that nine projects had been awarded a share of the £2m funding that the council had by then upped with an additional £300,000.

She said the finance and assets committee was “so impressed with the high calibre of the nine projects which met the criteria for funding, they agreed to add a further £300,000 to the budget so all could be funded”.

£800,000 was offered to Soham Town Council for the Soham to Wicken cycleway.

£250,000 towards adapting the footbridge linking Wicken Fen with Burwell Lodge.

£124,056 towards extending Spencer Mill in Soham to create an apprenticeship, trainee and learning hub for the Viva Arts and Community Group.

£51,350 for the refurbishment and soundproofing of the main hall and lounge areas at Soham Town Rangers Football Club.

£700,000 to Stretham Parish Council towards the cost of a new Community Hub and GP rooms at Plantation Gate, Stretham.

£191,935 for Witchford Playing Fields Association towards the cost of expanding its halls to create new changing facilities for sports clubs and a flexible space for indoor activities.

£63,000 to Little Thetford Village Hall towards the cost of converting its hall so it runs on renewable energy from solar panels.

£105,000 to Bottisham Parish Council for the purchase of land for a new cemetery

£22,265 has been awarded to Isleham Community Association towards the cost of a commercial kitchen.

However, in Fenland, the council remains coy about what it is doing with its windfall.uei

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