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£1m Combined Authority ‘gift’ splits Fenland town

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Handing £1m to give their community an uplift sounds like the stuff of dreams – but not so in one Fenland town.

Wrangling over how the money should be spent has prompted an outcry after the flagship plan for Whittlesey – a £500,000 heritage centre – was abandoned.

It led to one town councillor emailing colleagues telling them he was quitting the Conservative group and planned to become an independent.

Cllr Jason Mockett wrote that he had been “shocked, disgusted, embarrassed” and was extremely disappointed at the ensuing arguments over how to spend the money originally designated for a heritage centre.

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That Cllr Mockett reconsidered the following day (“for your information and clarity, I’m still a member of the FDC Conservative group” he messaged me) his anger has not gone away.

Cllr David Mason

And he might still have carried out his threat to quit had not the North East Cambridgeshire Conservative Association (NECCA) reminded him of two things.

Firstly “resigning” to town councillor colleagues was not going through the proper channels, and secondly his thoughts of retaining Conservative Party membership but remaining as an independent would not have been acceptable.

As Cllr Jan French, chair of NECCA, told me: “NECCA has never had a resignation from Jason”.

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She also added “A day is a long time in politics,” and so it turned out.

Cllr Roy Gerstner

But in or out of the party, Cllr Mockett has focused attention on the splits within the town over how the remainder of the £1m should be spent.

Only this month the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was asked to approve the reallocation of £455,000 from the cancelled Whittlesey Heritage Centre project to fund improvements to community assets in the town.

The Combined Authority heard in detail how a project team had looked at the centre’s proposed location, the gap in funding and market conditions and concluded it was “unlikely to produce a facility in a timely, affordable manner.

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“The project will not give good value for money to the taxpayer and work on the heritage centre has been suspended.

“As the heritage centre either in its original form and location, or in a reduced form and different location has now been halted, local elected members have discussed other options for the remaining funding to improve community assets within Whittlesey.”

These included a request from Fenland District Council to spend £45,000 on local sports clubs, £110,000 for “energy efficiency improvements” to the swimming pool, and £145,000 for community 5-a-side synthetic pitch, fencing and carpet replacement (£145,000).

It also agreed to splash some cash (£125,000) at the Manor leisure centre and put in £30,000 for practice nets and improved facilities for cricket.

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But all that, within a matter of weeks, has changed.

As independent town councillor Roy Gerstner explained.

He says the support for using the funding for youth facilities came about after he and town mayor Cllr David Mason, supported by other town councillors, put the proposals forward following talks with Fenland Council.

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However, as Cllr Gerstner explained on his website, the Growing Fenland Group (Whittlesey), had other ideas.

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This is the group set up by Fenland Council to allocate the £1m (the other three Fenland market towns each received £1m and each has a similar group).

How Cllr Steve Count of March took the news about his fellow Conservative councillor Jason Mockett. Cllr Count took to Twitter to share the news with his 290 followers

In the case of Whittlesey, the group consists of three councillors and five members of the public.

And when they debated uses of the aborted heritage centre, and the accompany funds now available, they had other ideas.

Cllr Gerstner says when Cllr Mason met the Growing Fenland Group (Whittlesey) there was no support for his re-allocation to leisure uses.

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Their own option, says Cllr Gerstner, was to use some of it towards Market Place improvements, financing the display of Must Farm artefacts, and £200,000 towards the next stage for consultants to put together a case for a Whittlesey relief road/bypass.

“This option was voted through and will now go the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority,” says Cllr Gerstner.

How Cllr Sam Hoy took the news on Twitter about her fellow Conservative councillor Jason Mockett

“Disappointed – yes very much so – however ‘we’ will carry on the campaign and hope that we will get support from ALL Whittlesey town/Fenland/county councillors in our quest for future funding.”

He added: “Some councillors have received a vast amount of ‘abuse’ because of this decision – I do not wish anyone especially councillors to be subjected to abuse – I have had it myself.

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“Have a grown-up argument by all means… robust – yes – but abuse No.”

The dissent, however, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

Cllr Jason Mockett

None more so than from Cllr Mockett who in a social media post wrote that “Cllr Mason and his team of two already wasted £40,000 on the doomed heritage centre project.

“The same person pressured and persuaded (in my opinion) the council to give Andrew’s church £10,000 of OUR money for repairs.

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“In my opinion Mason is not fit to lead Whittlesey council.”

In his, now withdrawn, resignation email Cllr Mockett had suggested “we should be pulling together as team to achieve common goals and objectives not infighting backstabbing each other”.

He also claims Cllr Mason continued to support the heritage centre when it became clear costs doubled and running year on year would have needed support from town council should have pulled back six months -plenty of time to consider options.

And for good measure, added he “no longer wished to be involved with the Conservative Party locally”.

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