Don't cosy up to Cambridge, west Norfolk

A view over the rooftops of the town centre from the King's Lynn Minster. Picture: Ian Burt

Will King's Lynn's fortunes really be improved by cosying up to Cambridge? - Credit: Ian Burt

There have been calls this week for west Norfolk to cut its ties with the rest of the county and increase links with neighbouring Cambridgeshire. But resident of the region CHRIS BISHOP says locals should be careful what they wish for

Drivers toot their horns as they crawl past the weekly protests outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on their way to the by-pass.

Jo Rust (left) with campaigners outside the QEH and North West Norfolk MP James Wild (centre, rear)

Campaigners calling for a new hospital at one of the regular protests outside the QEH - Credit: Jo Rust

Bypassed by the government when it comes to funding a replacement, there are many who feel the crumbling QEH epitomises the second-class treatment dished out to the community it serves.

West Norfolk has long been the poor relation when it comes to healthcare compared to the likes of Norwich, with its modern university hospital, or Cambridge with its rapidly expanding biomedical campus.

New hospitals cost money, big money. Only those holding the purse strings in central government wield the financial clout to deliver them.

An example of one of the 131 props in place around the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, incl

More than 200 props are needed to hold the roof up at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn - Credit: Submitted

Replacing the QEH with a new-build - the so-called 'big bang' option desired by its staff - would cost upwards of £600m at today's prices and take until 2030 to bring about even if it were given the go-ahead tomorrow.

While fingers are crossed it makes the list of eight new hospitals which are set to be announced shortly, there are fears it could end up with a smaller bang for its buck in the form of a phased rebuild.

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There have been calls for west Norfolk to work more closely with Cambridge, where two new hospitals are in the pipeline alongside two existing regional centres of excellence.

Chris Morley, an independent borough councillor, sparked a debate this week when he told a full council meeting this was the best way forward.

Independent borough councillor Chris Morley

Independent borough councillor Chris Morley - Credit: Borough Council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk

He said: "Working better with Cambridge is essential for our future and as some may argue that the wealth, health and integrated care for west Norfolk would have a better outcome if we were integrated with Cambridge and Peterborough rather than second citizens in the corridors of County Hall in Norwich."

Mr Morley's call - which reflects broader perceptions from many in the west that they are overlooked by the rest of the county - was backed by the borough's handful of other independents.

But the council's leader Stuart Dark said links with Norwich were improving and beginning to pay off, with more interest coming west Norfolk's way.

The county council's leader Andrew Proctor said Mr Dark was "spot on" and the two councils were working closely together, with the county helping to deliver "the projects and support the borough council wants".

Those who advocate integrating west Norfolk's healthcare system more closely with Cambridge's might be careful what they wish for.

Construction work under way on the Cambridge University Hospitals site

Construction work under way on the Cambridge University Hospitals site - Credit: Chris Bishop

For might a new cancer hospital 65 miles down the A10 mean that speciality being left out when a QEH rebuild finally emerges, at a time when cost is likely to play a large part in determining how it will shape up?

And they're building a new regional children's hospital at Cambridge too - so will the new QEH need paediatrics or could that discipline also be "integrated" elsewhere?

Closer integration might well end up with people travelling further for treatment than they do today - or poorly children being further from their parents.

West Norfolk needs to think twice about looking for new shirt tails to cling to if it thinks it gets a raw deal or less attention than it merits from County Hall.

For is the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority really going to wave a magic wand at Lynn?

A10 Littleport

The A10 between Littleport and Brandon Creek - Credit: Google

The fact its proposed improvements to the A10 stop at Ely when one of the worst stretches is between Littleport and the Norfolk border at Brandon Creek hardly bodes well for closer integration with west Norfolk.

King's Lynn has always been out on a limb geographically - a regional centre by dint of the fact it lies almost equidistant from Norwich, Cambridge and Peterborough.

It's not Great Yarmouth or Gorleston, whose proximity to Norwich clearly means they feel closer affinity.

Lynn's economy is also remote from those of its well-heeled neighbours, moving in different spheres and seeing rapid growth followed by almost equally rapid decline in the second half of the 20th century.

When the Campbell's Soup tower came crashing to the ground in a cloud of dust 10 years ago, it symbolised the final demise of the town's once booming industries.

The demolition of Campbell's tower, King's Lynn. Picture: Ian Burt

The demolition of Campbell's tower, King's Lynn. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

But the gap left by the likes of Campbell's, Lin-Can and Berol was never going to be plugged by cosying up to Cambridge.

Silicon Fen might well be expanding but it's unlikely to run out of space and need a northern outpost any time soon.

With a major new town being built at Waterbeach, six miles from Cambridge, the likes of Downham, Watlington and Lynn aren't even likely to become part of the commuter belt.

But pandemic aside, there are still brighter days ahead for west Norfolk in any case.

The £25m Town Deal will bring the biggest investment seen in Lynn for a generation and help reverse the decline of the town centre.

The Guildhall of St George, which would be refurbished to become a heritage attraction under the tow

The Guildhall of St George, which would be refurbished to become a heritage attraction under the town deal, while a creative hub will be established in the White Barn on the site - Credit: Matthew Usher

There are also plans to regenerate the Ouse waterfront, which have a certain irony about them when it comes to whether Lynn should look to Norwich or Cambridge to support its future aspirations.

For the tea-coloured river which slides past the Custom House and Lynn's medieval quays was once the source of the wealth which made the town one of the country's most important ports for centuries, second only to the likes of Liverpool and Bristol.

From the 13th to the late 17th century, the town was part of the Hanseatic League, a powerful alliance of merchants which controlled trade around the North Sea and Baltic ports.

Traders built grand houses alongside the quays, where wine, wool, wax, fish and iron were unloaded.

Some may well have found its way 50 miles or so inland via the Ouse and Cam to the cloistered colleges of Cambridge.

Lynn didn't have to go cap in hand to anyone in those days, when the wind was well and truly in its sails.

A Royal Charter, granted by King John in 1204 decreed the town should be a free borough, underlining Lynn's importance as one of the region's big hitters. 

The town has seen its ups and downs since then. Perhaps its pride has been a little dented by the rise of its rivals as they became the east's three great cities, while its star was not always on the rise.

But if seagoing trade is a barometer for the town's wider  fortunes, things don't look too bad with imports of timber booming, a healthy trade in grain and buoyant exports of scrap metal and even beans to Norway to feed the country's latest craze, falafels.

With its sister ports of Lowestoft and Ipswich, Lynn contributes an estimated £360m to the UK economy every year and supports 5,300 livelihoods, from the stevedores who drive the cranes to the farmers who grow the grain.

Its economy looks to the skies as well as the seas. For the expansion of the F-35 Lightning force at RAF Marham will bring more highly-skilled, well-paid aerospace jobs to the area.

And the tourism industry which has somehow made it through the pandemic is - fingers crossed - set for sunnier times.

Closer integration with Cambridge won't deliver the new hospital west Norfolk is crying out for - or any investment to help its economy move forward any faster than it already is under pretty much its own steam.