Home Page An old, old story no nearer to a happy ending 13/02/15

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

When I first began to grapple with the way town planning works, in 1970s Haverhill, I remember attending a public display in the lead-up to the creation of probably the first Local Plan which St Edmundsbury produced (the borough only came into being in 1974).

I can’t now remember where it was, but I’m guessing it was either in the town hall or in the old council chamber at the offices in Lower Downs Slade.

The most prominent display featured a large map of the town centre and bang in the middle of it was a big area hatched in blue. When I looked closely I discovered this was the site of the Gurteen factory, and when I examined the key at the side to see what the blue hatching meant, it said ‘supermarket’.

This was the first time I had realised that anyone contemplated the removal or relocation of the factory which had been the largest employer in the town until the previous decade.

That showed I was as yet green in the knowledge of local plans, as dear old Jim Healey, the Echo news editor of the time, quickly pointed out. He pulled out one of his favourite documents, the Gibberd Plan of 1970, and referred to the coloured map from it which used to be pinned on the board beside his desk in pole position for any reference.

In those days people were always coming up with new plans for factories, for housing, for roads and so on, so it was necessary to have the Plan map close at hand and, once Jim had orientated himself within it, by the familiar method of asking me to point out to him where his house was, he could then give a dissertation on whatever site happened to be under scrutiny.

On this occasion it was of no little relevance to us, as we were talking in our office, right beside Gurteen’s gate and able to view the site by opening the door and walking five steps to the right.

I don’t know if any of us really believed that a big supermarket was imminent in that very convenient position for us to use, but at least we knew what the council’s thinking was.

And that was all it was – the council’s thinking. Sir Fred had identified this as the most important site in Haverhill and the council believed that, in the fullness of time, the site would become vacant, either by the company collapsing, or by the Gurteens upping sticks and moving to a more convenient and less expensive location.

And that belief gained credence as the operations within the factory dwindled with the greater and greater outsourcing of manufacture to the Third World. Portuguese lorries became a familiar sight, clogging up Mill Road. Surely, something would have to give.

However, such a belief had not taken account of the discrepancy between the council’s estimate of the site’s value and that of the company. From the figures I heard whispered I reckon the council were a long way short and the company astronomically too high.

Both were relying on agents who, presumably, told them what they wanted to hear. That was unfortunate, because there was a time when a deal could have been struck, when the council had the sort of money and the will to do it.

After all, they had bought the Station Yard at auction some years before and then sat on it until they could realise what they hoped would be a profit. In the end, of course, they just gave that to Tesco as their part of the deal in getting another town centre supermarket.

And they had taken on the Jubilee Walk supermarket, built by Sainsbury’s, allowing the store to move out to Hanchet End, and leased it to the Co-op in what we called at the time the Haverhill Merry-Go-Round.

Councils were still able to be a lot more interventionist in those days than they could ever contemplate now. But the deadlock over Gurteens remained and for years, I believe, the two sides did not even talk to each other about the matter.

As each new Local Plan came round, the site continued to be hatched in whatever colour was assigned to retail development. But there was now little conviction behind it, as out-of-town shopping seemed to be the future.

During Richard Spring’s time as MP he used to envisage a little court of niche market shops there, with café culture outside them – a mini-Covent Garden - but others could not see that being successful in Haverhill.

To be fair to Gurteens they have all along looked for a new use for at least some of the buildings, to preserve them – not least because they like having a prestigious entrance for their clients to approach from.

They even brought Carisbrooke on board for a while, seeing them as successful developers elsewhere in Haverhill. A solution might have been reached, I believe, which would have brought a much-desired retailer to the centre of Haverhill – almost an answer to a prayer.

But the price was too high – the demolition of the whole site. No operator was willing to work within the constraints of the old buildings. They wanted it flattened, to start again.

So where does that leave this historic and much-loved edifice which happens to stand on the most desirable development plot in Haverhill?

I think one can tell from the rather optimistic fudge which Gurteens and the council have concocted between them that this story is very little nearer a happy ending than it was when I first looked at it.

The sad thing is that, in all probability, all sides want the same thing – something which will retain the architecture and benefit the community. But it’s a pipedream, because it would need a lot of public money to achieve it, and there isn’t any.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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