The closure of Bernard Matthews's main Norfolk plant could have been avoided if improvements to the A47 and construction of the Western Link had happened sooner, MPs and senior business figures tell BETHANY WALES.


It's the news nobody wanted to hear from one of the region’s big firms.

Bernard Matthews, which has been in Norfolk since its founding more than 70 years ago, is planning to close its Great Witchingham site, saying the factory is “no longer financially viable”

If the move is confirmed, after a consultation process, it would be devastating - not only for the 600 workers who would be forced to relocate to one of the firm’s other East Anglian sites or find alternative employment - but also for the wider business community, which feels the knock-on benefits of having such a large operation nearby.

But if you’re surprised it's come to this, the region’s business leaders and politicians suggest you take a closer look at the conditions here in East Anglia - namely, the state of our roads.

Eastern Daily Press: Bernard Matthews outside Great Witchingham Hall, where he founded the businessBernard Matthews outside Great Witchingham Hall, where he founded the business (Image: Newsquest)

Because according to Bernard Matthews, the plant's isolated location, poorly served by main roads, is one of the key reasons the Norfolk site might have to close.

Before announcing its closure plans, the firm carried out a strategic review which concluded that the factory's setting, deep in the Norfolk countryside, meant it did not make economic sense to invest further in it.

The site was chosen by Bernard Matthews himself, when he moved into Great Witchingham Hall in the 1950s and built his business from there.

The company initially supplied closer to home but grew rapidly and by the end of the decade was the biggest turkey supplier in Europe, its produce heading out in lorries to consumers around the country, with supplies arriving the same way.

The growth continued but the road network the company relied upon did not necessarily keep pace with it.

Plans to build a new road from the A47 around the west of Norwich - and close to Great Witchingham - have been in the pipeline for decades, but not a spade has yet gone in the soil.

And the A47 itself - which allows Bernard Matthews lorries to head to consumers in the north or midlands or towards the south and the A11 -  is still a gruelling single carriageway for much of its length.

Dualling and upgrades have long been promised but, again, actual progress has been glacial.

This week, Dr Andrew Boswell, a crowd-funded eco campaigner, is at the High Court as part of his latest efforts to block those upgrades.



The factory is in MP Jerome Mayhew's Broadland constituency. He visited last year and following the recent closure announcement, he said it was clear the area's poor road connections had been causing issues for some time.

Eastern Daily Press: MP for Broadland, Jerome MayhewMP for Broadland, Jerome Mayhew (Image: Newsquest)

“l heard first-hand about the difficulties in getting staff and materials to the site," he said.

“It is one of the reasons why we need the Western Link Road, which will link Great Witchingham directly into the national road network.  

“The sooner we can get the road built the more we can support businesses to grow in Broadland and Fakenham.’

Kay Mason Billig, leader of Norfolk County Council, agreed.

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk County council leader Cllr Kay Mason BilligNorfolk County council leader Cllr Kay Mason Billig (Image: Norfolk County Council)

She said: “For those who doubt that our lack of a good road network has any impact on our economy, here is a classic example. 

“If the Norwich Western Link had already existed, then sites such as this one in Great Witchingham would not be so cut off, and perhaps the outcome would have been different.

If we want to keep and attract companies with jobs for local people, we need the infrastructure to be able to do so.”

Business groups in the region have long been campaigning for a road to connect the Northern Distributor Road to the A47, plus the full dualling of the A47 to remove any single-carriage stretches, for years now - for good reason.

Research suggests places with improved accessibility from new major roads experience increases in the number of local firms and, consequently, higher local employment. 

A 10pc increase in accessibility leads to a 3-4pc increase in the number of businesses and employment, according to a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

For firms like Bernard Matthews, whose success relies on being able to quickly and efficiently transport goods around the country, road improvements could also significantly lower the overall costs of production.

But the solution is far from simple.



Jack Weaver, chief operating officer at Norfolk chamber of commerce, said the way the UK’s road network is managed has made it difficult to make changes, especially in rural regions like East Anglia.

He said: “More investment in roads and rail is critical where you have businesses with large fleets.

“But the problem is that major local roads, like the A11 and A47, are the responsibility of the central government, but all the other roads are the responsibility of Norfolk County Council. 

“This creates a disconnect which puts limits on what can be done at a local level, meaning things happen slowly.

“Extra funding from the government would help to mitigate the risk of local budgets being squeezed and, in theory, help get this important infrastructure built.”



Although local infrastructure has played a role in Bernard Matthews’ problems, Mr Weaver added that “other significant factors” were also at play.

He said rising costs had hit the agri-food industry “especially hard”, with prices at an all-time high in almost every area of business.

He added: “There can be a perception that if you're a really large business you're sufficiently insulated against these pressures, but this shows you can be a major local employer and still be hit.

“This is a reminder that we can’t be complacent - we need to be very careful in the run up to this general election to address these multifaceted issues.”



Last week the firm announced it would consider halting operations at its Great Witchingham site.

Eastern Daily Press: Great Witchingham Hall, where Bernard Matthews was foundedGreat Witchingham Hall, where Bernard Matthews was founded (Image: Newsquest)

It said the cooked meats processing plant, which currently employs around 600 people, was “no longer financially viable”.

The company blamed spiralling costs, ageing facilities at the site and the impact of bird flu.

It also said changing trends meant that fewer people were eating turkey, its primary product.

The firm, which has been owned by national companies since its founder’s death in 2010, has made losses of more than £35m over the past two years, which bosses say was due in part to “unprecedented” cost rises on energy, animal feed, fuel, and labour.

It said the cooked meats site was "not a sustainable operation" because of its age and location.

A spokesman said the business was in talks with workers to "explore the full range of options before making any final decisions" and that all staff would be offered roles at its sister sites across East Anglia.