Hart of the Matter
Haverhill town councillors had a difficult decision to
make last night. So what? You may ask – that’s what politics is all about, isn’t
it? Difficult decisions.
But, in fact, most council decisions are made
beforehand by the political parties in their own meetings and all individual
councillors have to decide – particularly if it’s an issue which involves
spending a significant amount of money – is whether they can bring themselves
to support the majority decision inside their party.
And, heigh-ho, most of the time they can, somehow,
argue themselves into supporting something which, on the face of it, they had
serious doubts about, when it comes down to party unity.
However, the fate of the Corn Exchange in Withersfield
Road, proved to be a bit of a tester. In the end they divided pretty much on
party lines, but there were some wobblers and some doubters.
The issue, sprung on them over the last week or two so
they haven’t really had time to test the water among their residents very much,
is whether the town council should register as a bidder for the building as a
The council was considering taking it on anyway, but
in a dilatory sort of way which was shocked into more specific action by the appearance
of a possible purchaser who wants to turn it into business units.
The Victorian edifice, which boasts some unusual
architectural features making it of interest to those who take an interest in
old buildings, has been slowly eroding way for years, ever since St Felix Roman
Catholic Church sold it off to help fund their new church. Before that it had
been their social club.
You may remember a video I did several years ago,
standing outside it on a freezing cold day in the rain, and trying to draw
attention to its plight. By then there were already small trees growing out of
No one did anything much until a year or two after
that when the local UKIP activists decided it would make a useful community
building – maybe a museum. But that idea seemed to fall by the wayside for lack
It has resurfaced now and the driving force this time
is a requirement for a venue in town for bands. The arts centre auditorium is
too big and too expensive for bands starting up and with only a handful of
The town council already had a plan in hand to extend
the arts centre to make the bar into a venue more like a pub, with a little
stage, which would be more suitable.
Now, instead, they are hoping to get the Corn Exchange
and, over a period of time, do it up on the lines of the John Peel Centre in
The project was described as a ‘once in a lifetime’
opportunity to do something with one of Haverhill’s iconic Victorian buildings,
while also saving it for the future.
So why would anyone not be in favour of it? Well, cost
is one issue. Just getting the building and weatherproofing it will likely cost
£270,000 we were told. Doing it up could raise that figure to £1.5million and
then it may well cost £50,000 a year to run.
Assuming that funds to do it up could be obtained via
grant organisations from the National Lottery downwards – and apparently there
are lots of them around – it would still end up in the town council having to
put its council tax precept up by 7.2 per cent, or £14 a year for a band D
property, within a couple of years.
All this to provide something which the council were
planning to provide anyway at the arts centre for rather less money – although that,
too, would require a lot of grant funding.
What’s more, the first stage of this process, known as
‘due diligence’, which means testing the building and the project from every
conceivable angle before going ahead and bidding, will cost £43,000 of
taxpayers money, with no guarantee that the bid would even be successful.
Members voted 10-4 with one abstention to register
their interest, and thus hold up any sale process until September, to give them
time to do this, under legislation which governs the sale of buildings which
could become community assets.
It’s a complex issue which has seen unpredictable
proponents on both sides. Labour, normally okay with spending public money for
worthy community uses, were opposed. Tories and UKIP, normally against any rise
in council tax, were in favour.
But the potential use of the building is still
unknown. A lot was said about bands and music, mostly, but not exclusively, a
province of younger people. This would doubtless help in fund-raising.
It’s a pity that local government accounting rules
mean the £300,000 earmarked by the previous Labour-controlled town council in
the teeth of great hostility from UKIP, to adapt either the Burton Centre or
the old magistrates court for a youth ‘hub’- a project which fell through –
cannot be redirected, if the Corn Exchange is to mainly be an asset for the
What about a museum? That, of course, is not expected
to be of interest to the young, so is harder to fund. Haverhill desperately
needs one, but I still believe the Gurteens site around the steam engine
Caroline is the place for that.
Exhibition space? The arts centre is woefully short of
that. But then it is woefully short of backstage space and facilities, and
these, planned as part of the extension, would bite the dust if the Corn
Exchange goes ahead.
That will leave the arts centre what it has been for
over 20 years – a half-finished project. The 1994 refurbishment was always
dubbed by St Edmundsbury as Phase 1, which is why the dressing rooms were
numbered 2 and 4. We still await 1 and 3, in an era when separating under 16s
from adults where any form of performance is hosted is almost mandatory under
The trouble is that the arts centre is up and running,
however creakily and with whatever pressure being placed on those who run it or
use it, and it is always less popular to relieve that than to go for an
exciting brand new project which may or may not deliver.
Both arguments are strong. I’m glad I didn’t have a
vote, although, as part of the ‘due diligence’, I expect we will all be asked
for an opinion before D-day in September.