A new forest, energy plant and sensors - businessman's latest bid to transform town
PUBLISHED: 06:30 05 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:47 04 November 2019
The businessman behind a bid to turn Downham Market into a "smart town" says this time will be different despite his last attempt to bring a tech campus to the area ending in failure.
John Beer said he hopes to use a Norfolk County Council-backed scheme to launch an education revolution in west Norfolk.
The council has said Downham Market would become the first town to benefit from its "Smart Rural Region" programme which would see a network of sensors installed in the town monitoring things like air pollution, traffic and flooding.
The council has got £440,000 of funding through the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) for the scheme.
It said it would take a hands off approach to the project with it being up to businesses and people in the town to decide what they wanted to do with the network of sensors.
Mr Beer, 68, has set up an organisation called the Clackclose Hundred which he hopes would use data from the sensors to teach children digital skills.
He also wants to use the Clackclose Hundred to bring investment to the area and has proposed ideas from planting a new forest to building a waste plant.
But the businessman fronted a project from 2014 to turn the old RAF base at Downham Market into a campus for tech firms which ended in controversy.
The company behind the project, Aventa Capital Partners Ltd, was criticised in an investigation by the Audit Office for a separate project where the Welsh Government gave them £9m of public money to build a race track which was never constructed.
Aventa Capital set up a firm, led by Mr Beer, called Downham Market Development Ltd to build the tech campus but it never secured the money needed.
Mr Beer claimed the reason for the failure was the lack of good schools.
He said he had two multinational firms wanting to move 500 "highly paid employees" to the campus but they decided against it because of the Ofsted rating of local schools.
He said that spurred him to focus on improving education in the area.
In a presentation to town councillors and a journalist from this newspaper about his new project, the Clackclose Hundred, in September, Mr Beer outlined his ambitions.
One of his slides, however, showed an image of how Dorset would develop rather than Downham Market, with the title changed to read Downham Market and West Norfolk.
The image, showing how different areas could be digitally connected, was taken from an NHS presentation called "Dorset's Digital Future".
Mr Beer said he had approval to use the slide and insisted it was relevant, despite depicting Dorset, as it showed what a "smart rural town could look like once digitally connected".
The Clacklose Hundred has already received £9,000 of funding from the National Lottery to kit out a centre above the library called ESTEAM.
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Mr Beer said teachers and pupils would get training at the centre.
He also said that they had submitted a bid to the government to fund a feasibility study for a "waste to energy" plant at Bexwell.
It would create energy for hydrogen vehicles out of plastic waste.
The technology has not yet been used in the UK but there are plans to build a similar plant in Cheshire.
No consultation has been carried out with residents in Bexwell yet.
Mr Beer said the Clackclose Hundred was just the start of numerous Community Benefit Societies, regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, which would support overlooked communities.
"We don't make any money out of it," he said. "But we believe the model can change the lives and aspirations of rural and coastal economies of the UK.
"Our overall objective is to make the project an exemplar for rural and coastal renewal and create sustainable economies and keep young people in the town rather than them needing to move to cities for jobs."
-What people in Downham Market think...
"The young people look for work elsewhere. The supermarkets here create employment but it isn't enough for the youngsters. It is a different world from when I was a young boy, we need to go back to creating more practical trade jobs," said Jack Sedgwick, 73
"After school we just hang about and do nothing. We have to make fun for ourselves. We need a cinema and more entertainment," said Callum Chambers, 16.#
"We need a McDonald's and more football pitches. There isn't a variety in jobs here and there's nothing for us to do. We just bike around and people tell us off. It's boring; they need to create more opportunities," Harrison Stone, 16.
"There needs to be a youth community centre and retail targeted at young people such as a gaming place," said William Taylor, 28, Fincham.
"I don't think there are enough jobs to keep young people here. It's mainly retail and caring jobs. Luckily we do have a train line here, so people can jump on it to get to wherever they want. "Ultimately it's down to the town to be forward thinking and have a vision to create something for young people," said Anna Foster, 47.