How dream of a £350 million tech campus for Norfolk now lies in tatters
- Credit: Ian Burt
On farmland at the old RAF Downham Market site a vision of the future was meant to take shape, employing 6,000 people and finding cures to deadly diseases.
With claims of Chinese backers, interest from US corporations and a promise of data science jobs, the Centre for Advanced Knowledge Engineering (C-Fake) pledged much needed investment in Downham Market.
It quickly gained support from councils and business leaders after being put forward in 2014.
But according to those involved in the project the scheme is now dead – and serious doubts have been cast on the ability of those behind it to have ever delivered it.
Construction of the first of 12 buildings was meant to begin two years ago, but the only earth which has been turned at the former Second World War air base off Bexwell Road is the soil under farmers' ploughs. The money and machines, hotel and hi-tech academy have never materialised.
An investigation by this newspaper has found:
•The company behind the Downham Market project, Aventa Capital Partners Ltd, and its owner Michael Carrick, were part of an investigation by the Audit Office in Wales over their unfulfilled pledge to build a race track with more than £9m of public money.
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•Aventa is linked to other failed infrastructure projects across the country.
•A planning application for the Downham Market project was received by King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council but never validated because of problems with it.
•Aventa faces a winding up petition in the High Court from another company which says it owes it money.
•A company owned by Aventa, which fronts the project, Downham Market Development Ltd, has never secured the tens of thousands of pounds it needed to start the scheme.
In July 2015, councillor Nick Daubney said in a report to the borough council that the plans for C-Fake were 'well advanced' with a planning application expected that year. The College of West Anglia also supported the project and the local enterprise partnerships in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire got behind the idea.
But borough council leader Brian Long said this week they had not heard anything about the scheme for a while.
'My understanding is the scheme will not be progressing and it is a great shame for the area because it could have done great things for the local economy,' he said.
A planning application for C-Fake which did eventually go in to the council was never validated because there were issues with it.
And Mr Carrick confirmed this week that his company Aventa was no longer involved in the project. He did not wish to comment further.
The man representing Aventa locally, investor John Beer, also said this week the scheme was no longer going ahead on the airfield site. He said he still hoped to build some sort of education centre elsewhere in Downham Market.
The project has been proposed since 2014 and, with it struggling to find private investors, in March this year Downham Market Development asked the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (GCGP) for £50,000 of taxpayers' money for 'initial planning and design costs'. It is understood they were seeking another £2m of public cash from the LEP after that to develop the project.
A spokesman for the GCGP said no money was ever given and the bid was not backed by its board.
C-Fake had also approached New Anglia LEP in Norfolk and Suffolk about the scheme but again no money was ever given.
In 2016, Downham Development published a video on YouTube promoting the centre, in which the chief executives of the two LEPs, Chris Starkie from New Anglia and Neil Darwin from GCGP, backed it. Mr Starkie described it as a 'game-changer' and 'utterly visionary'. Mr Darwin said he believed the scheme would have a 'massive impact' on the area.
A New Anglia spokesman said: 'The LEP offered its support to the principle of a skills project in the Downham Market area, not support for Aventa Capital Partners.'
According to documents at Companies House, Aventa Capital Partners had £501 cash in the bank in its last accounts. It has loaned Mr Carrick more than £225,000 and is also facing a winding-up petition from a creditor in the High Court, further putting into doubt its ability to find the funds for projects like C-Fake.
Mr Beer blamed a lack of good schools in the area for the project's failure, which meant firms would not relocate.
He said: 'Having spent much of the last four years talking to large and inspirational national and international organisations... about relocating to Downham Market, there is one common concern: education.'
He said Downham Market Academy going into special measures had 'now directly reflected in our ability to deliver the inward investment and regional growth aspirations'.
Mr Beer added: 'We haven't given up but commercial investors quite naturally are not impressed with a lack of government vision, investment to match our equivalent passion and funds we have spent, beyond placatory words.'
He said he was now hoping to undertake a smaller scale project in a different bit of Downham Market.
The College of West Anglia said it was still supporting the project by providing skills support for employers who were part of the C-Fake development.
• £9m of public cash for Welsh racing track
At the same time that the Downham Market project was being promised, Aventa and Mr Carrick were causing controversy in Wales.
Heads of the Valleys Development Company, of which Mr Carrick and another of his companies are majority shareholders, was given £9.3m of Welsh Government cash in loans and grants to start work on a race track in the Welsh valleys.
But construction work on the Circuit of Wales has never begun and the Welsh Government was criticised by the Audit Office this year for its 'significant shortcomings' in giving the firm taxpayers' cash.
Mr Carrick's role has also been criticised with Monmouth Conservative MP David Davies describing the Circuit of Wales as a 'personal enrichment scheme' for Mr Carrick and his wife Annabelle.
Mr Davies' allegation came after Wales Online reported in July that the family would receive more than £46m in cash and equity if the racetrack was a long-term success.
Mr Davies also said in Parliament in March the scheme was a 'pipe dream' and the plug should be pulled as it was putting taxpayers' money at risk.
He also highlighted the other failed infrastructure projects Aventa had been involved in, which have never gone ahead.
They include plans to develop the Port of Ardersier in northern Scotland, set up an investment fund for the Shetland Islands and develop a tidal barrage at Fleetwood in Lancashire.
The Audit Office investigation, meanwhile, found around half of the money given to Mr Carrick's company was spent on nine companies or people closely linked to Mr Carrick.
A spokesman for the Circuit of Wales told Wales Online that the rewards were performance related and only available if the project was successful over the long-term.
They also said Mr Davies' comments in Parliament in March were an attempt to 'misrepresent' the Circuit of Wales and its developers, 'based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of the financial structure of the development'.
Aventa is now no longer involved in the Circuit of Wales.
Mr Carrick did not wish to comment further when asked by this newspaper.
•Reaction in Downham Market
Had it gone ahead, the development would have been the town's biggest since the RAF base was built in 1942.
Mayor Frank Daymond said: 'It's a disappointment for the area because Downham Market needs some kind of morale boost and this would have done that. It was quite a far-seeing project.'
Jim Carlile, managing director of Reed's Homestore, on Downham's Bridge Street, said: 'I was surprised in the first place it was being proposed for Downham – we're a rural market town and it didn't quite fit with the profile of the town.'
Ali Dent, who runs the village shop down the A10 at nearby Hilgay, said: 'It's a shame.
'It would have helped to bring a few more jobs. It was supposed to be quite a big thing.'
Geoffrey Wareham, West Norfolk borough councillor for the Downham North Ward, said: 'I'm not terribly surprised. If it hasn't been started by now I don't think it ever will be.'