THE people of St Neots must change their negative attitude to their own town, they were told yesterday – but they still cannot expect the county council to build them a second river crossing.
The leaders of Cambridgeshire County and Huntingdonshire District Councils jointly offered to do whatever they could to facilitate the development of the town centre by private developers to match the expected addition of thousands of new homes over the next 10-15 years to what is already Cambridgeshire’s largest town.
Their upbeat message to a meeting of the town’s business leaders contrasted strongly with that of the Mayor of St Neots, Councillor Barry Chapman, who complained about countless aspects from the fullness of commuter trains, falling retail footfall and the level of unemployment to the closure of the regional college and the poor quality of digital radio reception.
The civic leaders were at the riverside Priory Centre for a meeting of the county council’s cabinet – only the second time it has met outside Cambridge in living memory.
Cabinet members had come not just to meet but to see for themselves the issues they needed to help the town deal with, said county council leader Nick Clarke.
He and HDC leader Cllr Jason Ablewhite hope to galvanise the town into identifying priorities for action and helping the private sector fix the problems – a process Cllr Clarke said was well under way in Wisbech following the previous out-of-town cabinet meeting there earlier in the year.
In a joint statement the two leaders identified development of the town centre as a key issue.
“Central to success then will be how the town centre develops, and we believe there are development opportunities and environmental improvements that can be exploited, while enhancing the character of this attractive market town.
“In particular, we believe the riverside offers huge potential and we wish to play our part as deliverers of public services, including our role as planning and highway authorities but also as potential active development partners, to make sure this opportunity is maximised for the benefit of the town.”
But the days when the county council could unlock that potential on its own, such as by building a second river crossing were long and would not return in the foreseeable future, Cllr Clarke said.
“We are here to see how we can help improve the economic prosperity and fabric of St Neots, by identifying what are the historic political obstacles preventing the town from moving forward.”
One of those obstacles may be St Neots’s view of itself as the poor relation of Huntingdon, as Cllr Chapman, who is also a member of Cllr Ablewhite’s cabinet, loses no opportunity to remind his leader.
Notwithstanding his catalogue of gloom, Cllr Chapman did acknowledge that experts had predicted the £8million cinema complex coming to the town centre would boost the retail economy by 25 per cent, at the same time as attracting a better class of person.
He nonetheless complained that there was an “assets deficit” in St Neots. “We need to acquire land for schools, dentists’’ and doctors’ surgeries, youth facilities and so on. Otherwise we’ll end up with lots of houses and nowhere for anyone to go.”
On the contrary, chided Cllr Clarke, St Neots had a wealth of assets, but it needed to change its attitude to make the most of them.
“There are places throughout the country that would give their eye teeth for what St Neots has. We must help you as a community to attract more people to the town to spend money in your businesses.”
If there were a broad consensus for developing the ‘Priory quarter’ to exploit the “jewel in the crown” of St Neots that the riverside represented, it would have the two leaders’ full backing, he promised.