Home Page Are we really all going to hell on a handcart? 25/07/14

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Hart of the Matter

When Haverhill Area Working Party next convenes it will, if all goes to plan, receive the final report of the Kent Business School project – at last.


There’s no knowing exactly what this will say, of course, but it would be something of a surprise if it contained any significant revelations. Sadly, the project, which began with such high hopes, appears to have fizzled out.


The whole thing came about through links with Tesco. When the mighty retailer first appeared in town, local traders were, not surprisingly, fearful of the effect it would have on them. Tesco, keen to be seen as good neighbours, offered to help with some of its expertise.


The outcome was to put St Edmundsbury Borough Council in touch with Kent Business School, which had carried out some marketing work for Tesco. A professor and some students set to work on assessing Haverhill town centre and came up with some suggestions as to how traders could be helped to help themselves on the marketing front.


It was this project, managed by St Edmundsbury’s economic development department, which first highlighted the issue of absentee property landlords who were charging whacking great rents (allegedly) and were unprepared to enter into any dialogue with the council or anyone else about the state of their properties.


The project reported regularly to the area working party (HAWP) and began to work with some individual traders – oh, and there was, of course, a survey. Then all fell silent, and has remained so ever since.


It seems likely that HAWP either took its eye of that particular ball – which was odd because it had hardly any others to watch at that time – or the borough decided the whole thing was a waste of time and wanted to let it die quietly and unnoticed.


Nevertheless, in this new era where HAWP members can come up with issues to put on their agenda, some bright spark remembered this and wanted to know where it had got to. So it went through the six-month process of getting onto the agenda, only for council officers at the last meeting to admit they had failed to make a report because they thought these items were for the next meeting.


This has dragged it all out to well beyond the end of the project period, which was pretty much over by this time last year, and we have still heard nothing.


The project was sold to us as a worthwhile investment of time and money to gain this top level expertise and analysis of the Haverhill town centre retail offer and how it could be improved. It coincided with the Government commissioning something similar from Mary Portas, about town centres, which reported long ago.


Over the intervening period a new vision of the future for town centres has begun to gain ground, one which seems to be a kind of capitulation to a sense of inevitable decline. This envisages areas for leisure activity rather than shopping, which it is expected will be almost entirely done online, although there might still be display areas where people could browse for fun.


It will be interesting to see whether this rather unsettling vision has been embraced by Kent Business School, and if so, how this might affect Haverhill as a community.


For a start, the new vision prompts more questions than it answers. What sort of leisure activity? Sport? Not suitable in areas which, by definition, have no open space, unless we ban traffic and return to the old football and cricket in the street which engendered so many England stars of long ago, and West Indian, Brazilian and Sri Lankan stars of more recent times.


What then? Amusement arcades? Betting shops? Fast food? Cafes? We already have quite enough of them. The so-called ‘cafe culture’ and bistros or wine bars of trendy places, beginning in Islington and currently exploding in such unlikely places as Hebden Bridge, is no solution. It’s not something everyone wants or can afford.


There has always been one leisure facility prominent within high streets for thousands of years – the inn. But it seems that its days are numbered too.


I can’t decide whether this is just a passing phase in society and that people 50 years hence will view the sweeping away of pubs in this generation as a moment of corporate madness comparable with 1960s architecture, as they set about re-creating them, or whether this really is the end of an era which has lasted for millennia.


Over the last hundred years we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other. Before the First World War, the little village of Hundon contained within its bounds 17 pubs. Most of these would have been simple beer-houses, with a back parlour, but it’s still an eye-watering statistic, and it was fairly standard.


Now Haverhill, with a population of nearly 30,000, is down to five, if you discount eateries like the Harvester, the Shuttle or the Drabbet. Even if you include them it’s eight.


The former Bell, the most central and therefore, one would think, the most important in the creation of a new-look town centre devoted to leisure activity, is now the subject of a planning application to turn it into a shop and eleven flats.


Well, you may say, that’s what people want – it’s the free market in operation, thanks to the complete overhaul of the licensing laws over the past 30 years. Bring it on.


But what does it mean for Haverhill? Where is all that trade, all that economic activity and all that money going? The answer is out of town to the big boys – Wetherspoons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Marstons etc. And then we wonder why smaller towns are becoming less viable – why OUR town is becoming less and less viable.


The acceptance of further progress down this road as inevitable, seems to me an apocalyptic vision.

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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