What became of Yarmouth and Lowestoft’s URC plans?

It was billed as an innovative way of developing rundown areas of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. But when the region's first and only urban regeneration company (URC) closed down on March 31 after five years, the much hoped for cranes and diggers had still not arrived. Reporter Stephen Pullinger examines the story of 1st East.

The New Labour brainchild was a compelling one. Assemble a small 'A' team to strip away planning red tape, assemble parcels of hard-to-develop land, market them and draw in investment.

And at the outset, the bill to the public purse - �800,000 a year with an advertised salary of about �100,000 for chief executive Philip Watkins - seemed a fair price to pay if 1st East were able to deliver new homes and businesses on flood-prone land that had languished unloved for decades.

However, with the recession taking a firm grip, potential developers soon scuttled away and dreams of grand schemes like a marina at Cobholm and a new leisure broad at Runham Vauxhall crumbled.

Instead, 1st East's legacy has largely been the assembly of area action plans, in Yarmouth's case far from finished, which include the painstaking completion of various studies and surveys to help future developers.

What epitaph is finally written for the URC depends, in part, on what town you live in.

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In Lowestoft, there is optimism that 1st East's plans - among them a Power Park to put the town at the forefront of the renewable energy industry - will still be realised when the economic clouds lift.

And Waveney council cabinet member Wendy Mawer firmly believes that '1st East has accelerated the regeneration plans for Lowestoft and put us at least five years ahead of where we would have been without their support'.

In Yarmouth, there are far more doubters and senior council officers have expressed the view that had the government permitted it, the injection of such a sum of public money into the council would have produced greater dividends.

The initial welcome for 1st East followed a visit by officers and councillors from both towns to Leicester, one of the original URCs.

The city's breathtaking masterplan to sweep away eyesore buildings and move a restrictive ring road to make way for hi-tech offices and smart public buildings made a striking impression.

And seven years on, Leicester Mercury business editor Ian Griffin reeled off an impressive list of successes including a new theatre and the doubling in size of the main shopping centre.

He acknowledged that an important key to the progress - alongside the fact that work was under way well before the banking crash - was the injection of government funding. 'A significant chunk of the �62m for the Curve Theatre came from the government,' he said.

As a latecomer to the URC party, 1st East not only had to combat the impact of the recession, but also the fact the government was no longer willing to open the public purse-strings so generously.

Acknowledging the setback, Mr Watkins said in the initial years there was no funding at all from the government agency English Partnerships. 'Eventually they gave us core funding, but we never had significant capital grants,' he said.

However, despite the undeniable hurdles, Yarmouth council's head of planning Peter Warner believes 1st East could have made greater progress if they had listened more to townspeople and adopted a more flexible approach.

He said: 'Yarmouth is a historic town with planning obstacles such as low land values, flood risk and archaeology. All that adds to the cost and you need to do your homework to get the economics right. And you cannot ignore local knowledge and opinion.'

Yarmouth borough and county councillor Graham Plant, a board member of 1st East, agreed that the URC's approach was too much like 'trying to create a clean canvas and ignoring what was there'.

This had brought 1st East into conflict with both the borough council and local business community, most notably in Runham Vauxhall where the URC was forced to back down on its plans to sweep away business from the Eurocentre estate to make way for a new leisure broad.

But he said: 'Although at this point we have not had any bricks on the ground, you can't dismiss the work of 1st East. They have left a legacy of plans and information that can be used to realise development in the future through such means as the new local economic partnership.'

Mr Watkins insisted they had not underestimated the challenges, but conceded that in the prevailing economic climate they could have downscaled their plans, in Yarmouth to three areas - North Quay, Cobholm and Southtown Road - at an earlier stage.

He said work in Lowestoft had proceded in a smoother fashion - the town's action plan was poised to achieve final planning approval - but he was confident schemes would be realised in both towns.

And he highlighted 1st East's successes in marketing the region for the energy industry and relaxing the Environment Agency's stance to allowing development in areas prone to coastal rather than fluvial flooding.

He said: '1st East's absolute legacy has been putting down the foundations for what the towns want to happen.'

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