Intellectually and practically, this economic blueprint prepared by the unaccountable Marches Local Economic Partnership for Herefordshire and Shropshire, is a very poor effort indeed.
Our passport to future prosperity, this is the all-important plan for jobs creation, attracting inward investment, and training our region’s workforce to compete in a fierce global economy. It should in every way be visionary, encompassing and insightful.
Instead, what has emerged is an unimaginative, entirely predictable £100 million shopping list of road building works centred on the three big towns, Telford, Shrewsbury and Hereford. (Download the strategy here.)
That Ledbury – and the County’s other market towns – do not figure one jot in Marches’ grand scheme of things is no great surprise given the deeply flawed thinking that went into its preparation.
In most situations where complex priorities have to be juggled and the merits of conflicting interest groups weighed, where long term investments need to be balanced with short term gains, there is usually comprehensive discussion, genuine consultation and a transparent process. It’s called democratic accountability. But not here in ‘The Marches’ it seems, where feudal codes of law-making seem still to hold sway (see note below).
The shadowy Marches LEP, whom nobody has heard of before, custodians of our economic fortunes, has managed until now to keep its cards very close to its chest. And the results are all too plain to see.
When the document was put out for consultation in January, respondents had just ten days to comment. This was about the same notice that the voters of the Crimea were offered in their referendum to secede, rightly judged to be outrageously anti-democratic.
It will be claimed no doubt that the impossibly short consultation period was because of a deadline imposed by Government.
The question is why it was left to the last possible moment before the draft plan was put out for discussion? What we were offered was not a genuine consultation, but a fait accompli.
It seems that there were no stakeholders in Ledbury who were consulted during the previous six months while the strategy was being thrashed out.
The Marches region is pitching for £100m to support economic growth in Herefordshire and Shropshire (around £70 million of which is to pay for various road schemes of unproven benefit in Hereford).
Despite Ledbury’s claims – and desire - to become a destination for high-value inward investment, the town is ignored. We are not in fact mentioned in this 100 page tome. Like the other market towns which have much to offer, and incidentally contribute handsomely in local taxes to the Council’s coffers, it seems we don’t signify in the economic “vision”.
Small wonder – for at the heart of this strategy is a whopping great fallacy. Marches LEP considers that Herefordshire and Shropshire is a ‘single geographical entity’. It is plainly not. The two counties look in opposite directions. For all their undoubted intellectual fire-power and business acumen, the great minds who put this strategy together are simply wrong.
The point is this: just because the Marches LEP covers our two counties administratively, doesn’t mean that we are the same or share similar interests. There has to be a recognition of diversity, and distinctive difference. Instead, the finished document reads like a Stalinist five year collectivisation plan: you will work together.
All economic growth assumptions are centred on a North-South axis, the A49 between Hereford and Shrewsbury. It might look convenient on a map or a snazzy graphic, but has anyone driven this road lately? From Ledbury it is a gruelling two hours to reach Shrewsbury via the A49, a shade less from Hereford. The journey is faster by motorway via Birmingham, a cool ninety miles. We are closer here by far to Bristol, Birmingham and the Thames Corridor.
Barring the unlikely creation of a motorway or High Speed train linking Shropshire and Herefordshire, it is quite clear that much of Herefordshire’s growth will come not from the North, but along the M50, south down to Gloucester and the A417, and over into South Wales. Likewise, Shropshire’s prosperity depends on the M54 corridor into the West Midlands and the North West.
Guys, the key economic principle is known as proximity to markets and suppliers.
Nobody is denying that Hereford has terrible traffic problems which are holding back its economic growth. The extraordinary thing however is that Ledbury’s natural geographic advantages, its accessibility by road and rail to hi-tec growth markets down towards Swindon and the Thames silicon valley, are being wholly overlooked.
The fact that Hereford continues to draw in all of the county’s precious economic development resources – tens of millions of pounds so far on the Rotherwas enterprise zone - also flies in the face of reason and fairness.
The UBL-Heinekin jobs bombshell this week is an alarm call. Our people want and expect some support. Here we are in Ledbury, crying out for jobs and investment, but look set to receive not one penny of economic support from Herefordshire Council and the Marches LEP.
What Ledbury urgently demands is a meeting to discuss jobs and economy, and its place in the wider economic growth plan. We are looking for long term investment in our infrastructure – business land, broadband and rail improvements should figure in this. We need training and skills development resources for young people particularly.
Ledbury offers fantastic opportunities for industrial, technological and business tourism. We should be viewed as an economic asset, not an outlying settlement, a dormitory town where the entire workforce is obliged to spend hours each day commuting at much cost to the environment, and our personal well-being.
The time for secrecy, Hereford-centrism and political complacency is now at an end. You owe it to the tax payers and voters of this county, not to mention our collective economic prosperity, to begin working with us.
Note: Marcher lords ruled their lands by their own law--sicut regale ("like unto a king") as Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester, stated (Nelson 1966), whereas in England fief-holders were directly accountable to the king. Marcher lords could build castles, a jealously guarded and easily-revoked Royal privilege in England. Marcher lords administered laws, waged war, established markets in towns, and maintained their own chanceries that kept their records, which have been completely lost. They had their own deputies, or sheriffs. Sitting in their own courts they had jurisdiction over all cases at law save high treason. "They could establish forests and forest laws declare and wage war, establish boroughs, and grant extensive charters of liberties. They could confiscate the estates of traitors and felons, and regrant these at will. They could establish and preside over their own petty parliaments and county courts. Finally, they could claim any and every feudal due, aid, grant, and relief" (Nelson 1966, ch. 8), although they did not mint coins. (Ref: Wikipedia.)