Home Page Corn Exchange project provides us all with a difficult dilemma 19/04/16

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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 community asset.

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 it.

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 of cash.

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 dedicated followers.

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 Stowmarket.

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 young.

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 safeguarding guidelines.

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.

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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