The State of Britain

Plans for the biggest new town centre since Milton Keynes revealed, the UK’s first environmentally friendly mosque in Cambridge and ‘Yesterday’ showcases the future of East Anglia’s film and tourism sectors

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Unemployment in the East of England ticked up by 3,000 to 100,000 between December and February; a slight increase of 0.1% to 3.1%. The SW of England had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.6% and the NE of England had the highest at 5.6%. The national unemployment rate stands at 3.9% and UK average earnings grew by 3.5% or by 1.6% after inflation.

East of England average property prices increased by 0.5% to £290,137 during the month which took the annual growth rate to 0.6%. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £226,234 during April which cut the annual growth rate to 0.6%.

Some key regional development projects took a step forward this month with the proposed town centre of Northstowe taking shape. The Cambridgeshire town will be the UK’s biggest new town since the 1960s development of Milton Keynes. Plans for the development of town gardens, market hall, civic hub and education campus have been revealed – overall there will be 46,450 sqm of commercial and community space. The high street will be 30m wide and allow for 1,000 apartments. The south east of St Ives has already seen 300 homes built with a further 10,000 proposed on the site of the former RAF Oakington barracks. Homes England is leading the delivery of the next two phases which includes developing the town centre and 8,500 homes.

A £5m Suffolk project which will restore wetlands habitat has begun. Suffolk Wildlife Trust has bought land adjacent to its existing reserve to create a 1,000 acre southern gateway to the Broads. The additional 348 acres was funded by a £4m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund with an appeal raising a further £1m. Contractors will take six months to create the wetlands and build a visitors’ centre; 120,000 visitors a year are expected.

A £23m mosque which has capacity for 1,000 worshippers has opened in Cambridge. The mosque includes a prayer hall, ablution areas and accommodation for its Imam’s family and visiting scholars. Billed as the UK’s first environmentally friendly mosque the building has zero carbon on-site emissions, rainwater harvesting and air source heat pumps. Ten years in the planning, the mosque will replace a series of overcrowded Islamic centres.

A project in Bedford to make the world’s longest aircraft will continue after a £1m development grant was awarded by the UK Aerospace Research and Technology Programme. The firm, Hybrid Air Vehicles, aims to build an electric plane cum airship hoping for near zero-carbon aviation. The project will take several years to develop a prototype 500kW electric propulsor to replace fuel-burning forward engines. The aircraft uses a combination of buoyant lift from helium, aerodynamic lift, and vectored thrust. A previous £32m project to build the now retired prototype Airlander 10 ended in 2017 following six successful test flights. The firm’s partners, Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham, have been jointly awarded this grant which is likely to be insufficient to see the project through.

On regional infrastructure, a feasibility study into a £136m bridge over the River Great Ouse at Huntingdon has been commissioned by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Currently motorists can only cross the river on the A14 between Godmanchester and Huntingdon or use the 14th Century Old Bridge which runs parallel. The study – which will be published in March – will examine whether the economic benefits of a third crossing and the subsequent easing of congestion will justify the cost.

Significant changes in regional transport this month after the Department for Transport announced that Dutch government-owned firm Abellio is to take over the running of the East Midlands rail line. The East Midlands franchise operates trains between Norwich, Nottingham and Liverpool. Abellio had been awarded an eight year contract from August, after Stagecoach, the current operator, was disqualified following a row over pension liabilities. Abellio operates five other rail franchises, including Scotrail and Greater Anglia services between Norwich and London. Abellio will replace the existing intercity fleet with modern carriages.

In the air, Ryanair has opened a new base at London Southend Airport from where it will operate more than 50 flights a week. The airline estimates it will fly 1m passengers a year on 13 routes to eight countries. One hundred cabin crew and pilot jobs will be created at the firm’s 14th UK base with another 750 ancillary jobs likely. The airport hopes to transit 5m passengers a year by 2022. Further west in the county, Ryanair has told passengers booked on some of its Belfast to Stansted services that their flights have been cancelled. The airline will reduce its Belfast service to Stansted to two flights a week from June 2.

The East Anglia film industry continues to strengthen after director Danny Boyle held an open casting call for a crowd scene at Gorleston beach, Norfolk. The film will involve 6,000 extras, boosting the region’s film and tourism sectors. Filming also took place at Halesworth, Suffolk, and Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. The alternate reality film, ‘Yesterday’, envisages a singer-songwriter claiming the Beatles hits as his own. Also in Norfolk, film extras were being recruited for scenes due to be shot in Norwich’s historic Elm Hill at the start of June in a Netflix movie being produced by, US singer, John Legend. The Christmas musical, called Jingle Jangle, will star Oscar winner Forest Whitaker.