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How the net is slowly closing in on exciting multi-million pound deal for Grimsby

How the net is slowly closing in on exciting multi-million pound deal for Grimsby

Parliamentary correspondent Patrick Daly looks at the story behind Business Secretary Greg Clark’s support for the Grimsby town regeneration deal.

It was planned as a “pincer movement”, an ambush from both sides.

First came the softly, softly approach of friendly fire, followed by the outright demand for the money.

No, this wasn’t the scene of a mugging on one of London’s increasingly frightening streets – it was a piece of political power play in the House of Commons.

North East Lincolnshire MPs Melanie Onn and Martin Vickers met in the days before Business Questions – the monthly hour-long window for MPs to quiz ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – and put their political divisions to one side to plan their next attack on the town deal.

The Grimsby and Cleethorpes MPs decided then that the best method was to ask Business Secretary Greg Clark directly when the money for Grimsby’s regenerating town deal was going to be forthcoming.

An earlier meeting with between the MPs and key figures behind the revitalising plans had not managed to dampen creeping concerns that the deal’s momentum had stalled. It was time for decisive action, they decided.

Their idea for a quick one-two worked – the pair got the response they were looking for from the Secretary of State.

During an exchange in the Commons last week, Mr Clark told Mr Vickers, pictured right, he was planning a visit to Cleethorpes and Grimsby to “help with the negotiations”.

And when Ms Onn followed up moments later from the opposition side of the Commons, he went one better.

Asked by the Labour MP how he planned to move the town deal from “theory to reality”, Mr Clark said: “I will come and sit down with Grimsby and Cleethorpes leaders to negotiate it myself.”

It was quite the promise from a Cabinet minister in a move that has released some of the frustration around the talks.

It has been almost a year since the Greater Grimsby Partnership Board – the public and private sector sponsors of the economy-boosting plans – revealed their regeneration blueprint.

The 10-year town deal – which has cross-party backing both within North East Lincolnshire Council and Parliament – is an upgrade scheme aiming to breathe new life into Grimsby’s waterways and docks.

It plans to create educational and leisure opportunities, with long-term targets of establishing 5,400 further jobs and building 7,700 homes, as well as adding £216million a year to the North East Lincolnshire economy.

Under the scheme, the publicly-owned Victoria Mills and the forgotten Kasbah would become city hubs once again, while the disused Garth Lane site could be turned into desirable flats, bringing a permanent “lived-in” buzz to the town centre.

While there is the promise of private investment, the hold-up for the ambitious plans – spearheaded by Grimsby-born millionaire and entrepreneur David Ross – is the ask of £36.9m, spread over five years, from the Government.

Supporters of the deal cannot complain about a lack of political profile – it has been heralded by everyone from local councillors to the Prime Minister.

It was even mentioned in the Government’s industrial strategy master plan, published in November.

Despite the positive PR, there have been creeping doubts that the Government was paying only lip service to the plans and ignoring the calls for financial support.

In February, Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry told MPs to stop asking him about it – even though his department is responsible for the devolution agenda in England.

Business ministers instead picked up the slack and in March there seemed to be a breakthrough when, during a meeting in Westminster, Lord Oliver Henly, responsible for the industrial strategy, set out a timetable for agreeing a settlement on the money.

Before that could happen, he asked to see a wholesale prospectus and said they would resume negotiations after the local elections on May 3.

North East Lincolnshire Council (NELC) has confirmed it kept its side of the bargain with a draft prospectus, outlining their regeneration intentions in firmer details, sent to ministers in April.

But, despite it being five weeks on from the local elections when the MPs sat down to talk strategy a fortnight ago, there had been no movement on discussing the nitty-gritty issue of cash – which takes us up to the present day and Mr Clark’s fresh promise to personally negotiate a deal.

The council was taken by surprise by the forcefulness of Mr Clark’s comments but his response has already had an impact in getting the ball rolling again. Officials are currently sourcing a date for the Business Secretary to visit the south bank of the Humber.

Councillor Peter Wheatley, responsible for the economy at NELC, said he planned to show the Tory minister around the town deal’s “key sites” in a bid to “get some further, tangible, support”.

It seems obvious what the Labour councillor means by “tangible” – he means cold hard cash. And preferably all £36m of it.

Grimsby MP Ms Onn, pictured right, said she thinks a visit to the region could help persuade those in power to sign on the dotted line.

“Ministers being dragged out of their offices and into the real world is no bad thing,” said the Labour shadow minister.

“The Secretary of State needs to see the reality of what is happening in Grimsby and, after 18 months of talks, finally commit to the town deal.”

The progress on the town deal may have been slow going but sources close to the talks said it was not out of any lack of interest from Mr Clark. In fact, they report that he has been one of the key drivers of it in Whitehall.

The Tunbridge Wells MP’s interest in the matter stems back 15 years when he co-edited a book, Total Politics: Labour’s Command State, about how power was overly centralised in the UK.

Those writings would go onto inform his politics and his time in Government. He was appointed Cities Minister in 2011 in a role that would see him sign a ‘city deal’ with Hull and help get Siemen’s Green Port factory built.

The former Tory policy director was later promoted to Communities Secretary where he played a major part in working on the Greater Lincolnshire devolution set-up, which proposed establishing an elected mayor in exchange for £450m worth of fresh powers. Mr Clark would move on to become Business Secretary and the Greater Lincolnshire plans would fall through soon afterwards – but those devolutions talks established a link between the hierarchy of NELC and the top Government minister.

It led to the Middlesbrough-born politician soon getting on board when the town deal was put in front of him.

He is rumoured to have butted heads with the Treasury when his department revealed they wanted to mention the Grimsby town deal in the industrial strategy. Despite opposition from those holding the purse strings, Mr Clark got his way.

Mr Clark is said to be aware that places such as Grimsby, with its decline in traditional industries, need some control over their own economic destiny if they are to prosper.

And if the “off the shelf” models of devolution have not found local support, then it appears he is willing to try bespoke ideas such as the town deal.

When NELC leader Councillor Ray Oxby and chief executive Rob Walsh were in Westminster three months ago, they made clear to ministers that Grimsby could act as a national catalyst for ‘town style’ devolution.

If a town deal pilot project was given the green light in Grimsby and proved successful, their reasoning is that the model could be replicated across similar post-industrial towns in England and Wales.

Mr Walsh told the Telegraph at the time that other councils had been in contact with NELC to ask how they went about building public and private sector consensus around the plans – a cross-over appeal he hopes ministers will find appealing.

With Mr Clark’s latest pronouncement, it appears he is certainly encouraged by what is in the town deal.

And if he hands over the £36m being asked for when he next visits, it will be another promise kept to the town halls of England by the devolution disciple.

News Courtesy: www.humberbusiness.com 

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