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
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
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
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
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.