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£40,000 project on town centre produces mixed conclusions

Friday, 12th September 2014.

A £40,000 three-year project to help independent traders in Haverhill and so improve the town centre retail offer has taken half as long again, and come to no very positive conclusions.

Destination Haverhill, was a project set up by Kent Business School in conjunction with St Edmundsbury Borough Council, at the instigation of Tesco at the beginning of 2010.

Its three phases were to collect data about the town centre and shopping behaviour, to offer mentoring to independent traders and to monitor the results.

St Edmundsbury put in £10,000, Suffolk County Council matched that and Kent Business School added another £20,000.

The final report by project leader Debbie Kemp was presented to members of Haverhill Area Working Party meeting yesterday.

The report said: "In summary, the retail trading conditions have remained relatively static over the past three years with vacancy rates remaining below the national average in the town centre.

"There has been some variation in the retail mix of outlets with some shops closing and others
entering the market.

"However the overall offer of fashion and sportswear products in the town continues to be poor with no investment from multi-chain retailers.

"This will continue to be a disappointment to the local residents; 76 per cent of the respondents of the original survey requested a better range of shops in Haverhill as the main area of improvement.

"There has, however, been a positive increase in the development of the market culture in the
town with new initiatives and events.

"The town also won £10k from the Portas Pilot fund which the Chamber of Commerce team is currently managing. The ONE Haverhill team is
also working very closely with the borough council (particularly in terms of engaging the community) to develop a Haverhill Masterplan to improve the town centre for everyone.

"Visually the town looks very similar, the pedestrianisation works not having been progressed at this stage (however this will be part of the Masterplan process) and limited funding for other capital projects.

"There continues to be investment in the Research Park creating additional jobs and housing which is an opportunity to tap into.

"The challenge for the local authorities in partnership with the local retailers continues to
be how can they work together to ensure the high street is regarded as the centre of the community.

"The appeal of on-line shopping and the larger shopping centres in Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge will not go away.

"However if Haverhill Town Centre can create a unique experience with the right retail, leisure and service mix it will be able to compete and grow."

A section on 'improving the shopping experience' reports: "Although the vacancy rate remains below the national average the product choice for fashion and sportswear locally is still very limited. Morleys, the only independent Menswear retailer, and New Look closed in 2013.

"Residents will continue to shop on-line and in other larger towns to meet their needs.

"Business rates nationally have gone up in the past two years and entrepreneurs are discouraged to invest in empty outlets.

"Progress has been made to encourage the market community to expand. With the appointment of a market development officer new initiatives have been developed such as ‘Love Your Local Market, 'Youth Market’, Farmers Market, Motor Show, and ‘trade for a tenner’ which has encouraged four new stalls with a diverse range of products to start selling.

"This is highly encouraging as it helps to bring additional footfall into the town centre and
create a vibrant atmosphere.

"The ‘Co-Op’ building remains empty, located on prime footage adjacent to the Jubilee Walk car park.

"It is difficult to limit the glut of betting shops, charity shops, hair and beauty salons and
takeaway food shops which are currently taking up a disproportionate amount of space on the high street compared to the shoppers' needs.

"However, the council team have established a public register for landlords, which has now been handed over to the Chamber of Commerce who are actively encouraging them to engage in the town to support their investment."

Anotjher section says: "The town continues to lack restaurants which would encourage a vibrant night time economy and engage with residents who do not currently shop locally.

"Partners need to consider what conditions are necessary to encourage restaurants into the
town including: the availability of suitable units; favourable licensing conditions; improved lighting; evening events; and possibly a subtle police presence to encourage a desirable and safe night-time culture."

The report concludes: "The local retailers and landlords need to play their part in the development of the town and engaging with both of these communities continues to be a challenge."

The last point was re-inforced at yesterday's meeting by the borough economic development officer Andrea Mayley, who said: "It has been difficult to engage the retailers and the project was taken forward with less than we had hoped."

Cllr Maureen Byrne asked for a breakdown of how the £40,000 was spent. She pointed to the report's finding that the Arts Centre was the focus of activity in the town centre, with events planned to increase footfall, and also to the continuing derelict state of the old Co-op.

In both cases St Edmundsbury was not helping, having removed its funding towards the Arts Centre and as owner of the Co-op building.

Cllr Anne Gower said: "This report has taken a long time getting to us, but it is here now and hopefully the masterplan process can cherry pick from it."

She suggested the 'Free after three' initiative on Fridays in Haverhill's car parks should be reviewed by the borough as it was not achieving anything, mainly because by then the street market was already being taken down.

Cllr Adam Whittaker said he was pleased to see the Haverhill story was one of success. He said it was still a 'vibrant' place to shop. He visited a lot of smaller towns in the course of his job and many were not doing as well as Haverhill.

"It isn't everything we want it to be, but it is still successful," he said.

With regard to the Co-op building, Ms Mayley said St Edmundsbury owned it but it was on a long lease to the Co-op. The council had tried to work with the Co-op and engage them, but it had been a struggle.

They paid their money, but in terms of making them do something with it and get out of paying, which you would have thought was a 'no-brainer' for them, they were not interested.

Haverhill Online News

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