Home Page Destination Haverhill project has come up with some enlightening points 23/03/12

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Hart of the Matter

In all the palaver over pedestrianisation (or lack of it), there was another big town centre issue under the spotlight last week which got rather overlooked.


Whereas the consultation about high street improvements only received 108 responses, the retail survey of the town centre pulled in over 530, which is a slightly more representative sample.


This is the Destination Haverhill project being handled by Kent Business School, in conjunction with St Edmundsbury Borough Council, to try to make Haverhill more of a honeypot than it currently is.


The first phase was this survey, to try to find out why people shop here, or don’t shop here, and where they do their other shopping. It’s easy to be cynical about all the surveys we’ve had, and about academic exercises of this kind in general, but there was quite a lot of interesting stuff in this report.


That was not immediately obvious from the headline findings – that Haverhill has a poor range of shops and that shoppers rated its range of shops as only three out of ten. I think almost any town resident over the age of three could have told us that for a lot less than this project is costing.


No, it was in the detailed analysis that some more enlightening and less obvious points were made. First, it showed that there is nowhere in Haverhill, except the supermarkets, to buy a range of items including middle-range clothing, sports clothing, toys, gifts and games, among other things. These, not surprisingly, are the things which people go out of town for most.


It surprised me that they don’t go much to Saffron Walden, Braintree or Newmarket, which are reasonably close and each have quite a bit to commend them as shopping centres. Instead, Haverhill residents are rather less imaginative and regularly traipse further, to Cambridge (good road, good shops, terrible parking) and Bury (bad road, limited shops and depressing).


It surprised me less that the retail area which I consider Haverhill signally lacks – decent food shops - did not even register. People generally buy their food in the town and there is little call for any expansion of range in this area.


No call, then, for a decent fishmonger, greengrocer, cheese shop, locally farmed meat and game, etc. Either we are satisfied with the mundane fare of the supermarkets, or we find a trip to Haverhill’s excellent produce market once or twice a week is enough.


This is curious, not least because previous retail surveys have suggested one of the ways forward in broadening the range of shops in Haverhill would be little ‘try-out’ market stalls and visits from French or Italian markets.


Nevertheless, this latest study highlights all these other areas and indicates that a big clothing chain might sort the town out in five minutes – except we’re not going to get one because we’re too small. Sorry, to clarify, our number of core customers for their particular markets is assessed as being too small.


So, instead, it comes up with a new way forward, and this, I feel, is a courageous suggestion – or it would be if the people making it actually shopped in Haverhill. It suggests concentrating on the town’s independent shopkeepers and encouraging them to ‘up their game’, describing their shop fronts and window designs as ‘tired’ and ‘old-fashioned’.


I don’t know about all of our many and various traders, but some of them have been tired and old-fashioned enough to see off several national competitors over the years and I doubt if they will appreciate being told to pull their socks up.


Nevertheless, if they have any sense, they will listen to what is proffered and take out of it what they think will be useful. If it can help them grow their businesses it will have been well worthwhile.


But in many cases the problem goes a lot deeper than signs and window-dressing. The fundamental game-breakers for many have been the two Rs – Rates and Rents.


This study has been the first to tease out in public the damage which has been done to our town, and to many others like it, by a load of selfish, unaccountable, uninterested and, in many cases, virtually uncontactable, landlords.


In the good old days, when you saw a shop, you could be pretty sure it owned its own premises, because who would want to go on paying rent for ever and a day and retain no asset? It was only common sense.


Now, however, a huge majority of retailers lease their properties. The actual owners are not even dastardly property tycoons any more. They are mostly foreign companies or pension funds and they have absolutely no intention of managing their property on any other basis than the maximum short-term return.


Hopefully, thanks to Mary Portas’ report to the Government about dying high streets, some legislation may come forward to help communities deal with this issue – but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Budget has shown that, for all its talk about communities, the Government’s first loyalty is to corporations and those it sees as wealth creators.


For businesses the size of most of our high street traders, the Government’s answer in the current climate is more likely to be: "Well, sorry mate, but you’ll just have to up your game.”

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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