Ely student Will Law’s campaign against plans for fast food outlets in the new leisure development, and very close to Ely College, has gained a good deal of press coverage and significant support. MP Lucy Frazer has even become involved. Irrespective of the eventual success of the campaign, it has been highly effective in shining a light on the activities of East Cambs Planning Committee.
At their final meeting before this year’s local elections and appropriately held on April 1st, the Planning Committee waved through plans for the leisure development, including two fast food outlets. Reading the minutes of that meeting, you might have expected to see some close scrutiny of the plans and debate about the wisdom of these outlets so close to a large secondary school. You would have expected to see some mention of the Government’s guidelines for 400 metre ‘exclusion zones’ for fast food around schools. Instead we have little more than a sustained bout of cheerleading for the development with minimal scrutiny. The minutes contain reminiscences about a councillor’s cinema visits in his youth and convey almost childlike excitement about the development. No mention of quality of design, no real examination of how the proposed underpass under the A10 would function and an apparent lack of rigour throughout. Subsequently, we were treated to a number of comic statements about the developments’ potential to catapult Ely into the 21st century. Those comments revealing so much more about the councillors than about Ely.
What should have happened? Scrutiny should have been much, much tougher and councillors should have sought to be more active in ensuring the quality of building and fit for the site. The Council should have and still must shape the development to bring the maximum benefits to the area. One of those benefits should be a positive impact on health. To have only fast food is at best a lost opportunity. This is seen as a flagship development bringing in needed leisure facilities and replacing increasing the outdated sports centre. Ely is a unique settlement, perched on its isle in the Fens. All development should reflect that and seek to enhance the city as a place to live and a centre for the surrounding area. The area needs better than a ‘bog standard’ out of town development designed around the needs of the developer not the residents.
East Cambs councillors need to think again, work with the developer to ensure the best possible design. Do not assume the fast food outlets are a ‘done deal’; look at different options and siting. They might reflect on how others see them. Their own MP has taken a somewhat different stance, recognising the councillors’ errors and has at least offered to talk to the developers. For the future, East Cambs need to be much tougher about development; less eager, less naïve and begin to mould development to provide more community benefits.