Was controversial £2.25m business zone doomed to fail?
PUBLISHED: 15:05 24 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:11 24 September 2019
Following the decision to pull the plug on the £2.25m Egmere Business Zone, we look at where it all went wrong.
A £2.25m business park for offshore energy firms was expected to bring hundreds of skilled jobs to north Norfolk. But with the scheme scrapped after four years of planning, TOM CHAPMAN looks at what went wrong with the Egmere Business Zone and what will be done to ensure the district benefits from having some of the world's biggest wind farms built off our coast...
It was billed as a thriving business hub which looked set to spark a boom in offshore energy investment and create 300 skilled jobs.
But four years after proposals for Egmere Business Zone were first revealed, its death knell sounded last month as North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) cabinet members decided to cut their losses and scrap it altogether.
So why did this "entrepreneurial" and "exciting" plan of action fail to live up to initial expectation?
Falling within the Conservative government's long-term economic plan, the project was part of the Enterprise Zone scheme designed to place a greater emphasis on highly-skilled jobs and increase investment in infrastructure.
The Egmere park, located between Wells and Fakenham, gave offshore energy companies an opportunity to move into the zone without having to apply for planning permission.
It also offered companies a five-year break from business rates as well as access to superfast broadband.
And yet, despite the apparent benefits, controversy grew as doubts were raised over the zone's financial viability and potential to create jobs.
So divisive was the issue that it ultimately contributed to the split of the Tory-led council, prompting a vote of no-confidence and a change of hands to the Liberal Democrats.
By the time the cabinet agreed to pull the plug on Egmere and the new Cromer Tennis Hub, more than £500,000 worth of public money had been spent on the two projects - which would have seen a combined investment of around £5.5m.
Having initially voiced his support, Sir Norman Lamb - MP for North Norfolk - was one of those to question whether Egmere Business Zone would ever prove fruitful enough to be deemed a success.
With his doubts having been echoed by the district council, Sir Norman said: "From my point of view, it was a concern that the project seemed to be proceeding despite evidence of limited return on investment.
"Councils have to be very robust in their approach to using public money. I endorse the principle of councils creating jobs, but it has to be good value for money.
"The problem with the promise of jobs was that, from my understanding, they were very limited. That's the really shocking issue - how much public money was being spent to create very few skilled jobs."
While the overall Egmere scheme has been abandoned, an agreement is in place for the site to retain its enterprise zone status should potential investors come forward.
Duncan Baker, leader of the Conservative group at NNDC and a vocal proponent, says ditching the project represents a failure to grasp a "huge opportunity".
"A council has a duty to create infrastructure and we absolutely have to create business enterprise opportunities in the west of the district," said Mr Baker.
"The current Liberal Democrat administration thinks it cannot take risks with public money. This would've put a real marker down and it's a total waste of public money to scrap the project at such an advanced stage.
"By not creating jobs in the west, what signal does that send? It says we don't believe in you, no one's going to take these business units, so we're not going to bother."
Amid accusations of showing reluctance to invest, NNDC leader Sarah Butikofer defended the Liberal Democrat administration's handling of the saga.
"We had nothing but support for Egmere but, five years on, only two businesses had shown an interest," said Mrs Butikofer. "We simply could not proceed on that basis.
"We have set out in our budget amendment that we are happy to spend money, but it has to be spent in the right areas and provide a return for people.
"It still retains its status as an enterprise zone at the current time and, if someone comes to us tomorrow saying they would take a unit, we would probably reopen it."
Withdrawal of the ... project has raised questions over the continued growth of offshore energy, which looked set to flourish thanks to the enterprise zone's numerous perks.
Simon Gray, CEO of East of England Energy Group, says Egmere Business Zone's location meant it faced an uphill battle from the very beginning.
"The Egmere situation is really unfortunate," said Mr Gray. "We welcome any development that may provide skilled jobs, but the question is whether they are on suitable sites.
"North Norfolk District Council had a strong approach to try and boost the region. There is no problem with Wells and the surrounding area, but industry tends to go to the best places for their business needs.
"Realistically the growth is likely to be higher up the coast, with our colleagues in Humber or down in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft."
Wells harbourmaster Robert Smith, a supporter of offshore energy growth in the region, believes the focus must instead switch to educating the next generation of skilled workers.
He added: "Egmere was initially a good idea and there was a lot of potential, especially with the Sheringham Shoal wind farm already established.
"The thing is, it was always going to be difficult because it was outside a town and I'm not sure whether businesses wanted to be based there.
"I'm disappointed Egmere has been scrapped because encouraged businesses to come to the area, but I'm hopeful going forward.
"The future in terms of skilled jobs is in apprenticeships. We have to engage with schools in the area and give young people the necessary skills so they can go into the industry."