Home Page Don't blame planners for shops deficit - the blame lies closer to home 09/01/15

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Hart of the Matter

Hardly has 2015 got its nose out of the starting block (Happy New Year, by the way) but there is drama and contention a-plenty with Gurteen’s plans and those for the Bell coming before councillors.

With an election coming up there is ample opportunity for those who don’t make these decisions to have a pot at those who do. Later in the year it will, quite probably, be the other way around.

But one constant within the equation will be the fact that planners can’t actually make anything happen at all. Planning is an almost entirely negative activity, in that it is about preventing change which is deemed to be unsuitable, inappropriate or damaging – and nowadays one might add the word ‘unsustainable’ which has crept into the language without anyone quite knowing what it means.

Of course, planners are keen not to be seen to be stifling economic growth, but that is not their prime function. In so far as they can enable or facilitate useful developments they probably will try to, because it should be in everyone’s interest to have better facilities. But that’s as far as it goes.

If we are looking for culprits as to Haverhill’s poor retail offer, we need to look a lot further than planners. For any positive activity on the economic front it is not often possible to look very far within the corridors of even Suffolk County Council, let alone little St Edmundsbury (or West Suffolk as it now is for all practical purposes), and even less so the minuscule Haverhill Town Council.

One could point to the borough’s ownership of the long defunct Co-op building in Jubilee Walk and ask why there has been so little success in promoting it. One could point to the borough’s economic development department, staffed at our expense, and ask what it has achieved in Haverhill.

But these are only pieces in a much bigger jigsaw. I spent New Year in Shropshire and had the chance to wander around one of England’s truly beautiful towns, Ludlow. This is one of the most affluent areas of the countryside and Ludlow itself is a byword for the sort of posh and varied shopping we all like to think would be a boon in such places as Haverhill.

Just outside the town is Ludlow Food Hall, the champion ‘farmers’ market’-type retail premises in Britain – although, to be honest, I can’t see that it is noticeably better than the excellent ones we have around here at the Gogs or Chippenham.

So I always enjoy nosing around Ludlow’s little lanes and courts. It’s a couple of years since I was there, and this time I spent most of the time counting charity shops. Home from home, I thought. And yet the catchment area could not be more different from Haverhill.

Of course, Ludlow is a lot smaller than Haverhill and more comparable, perhaps, with Saffron Walden, which has its fair share of charity shops as well, but there was a stark contrast between its semi-deserted streets and the bustling Haverhill I had left behind on the Monday after Christmas, when I was astonished how busy it was.

So when we hear people mocking the arrival of Wood Green Animal Shelter shop as the latest addition to Haverhill’s emporia, we should perhaps be looking at the wider picture. Shops, wherever they are, and whatever size they are, reflect the people around them.

I am guessing that Ludlow, surrounded by beautiful countryside and a very desirable location to live in, within a reasonable commute of Birmingham, has suffered hugely from Internet shopping. You need a car or two to survive around there, and then it’s a bit of a trek to the town and the shops. Much easier to shop online.

High streets up and down the country are facing the same problem as finished off so many village stores in the 1970s and 80s. Only now it isn’t the mobility of the shoppers that leads them to easier and cheaper outlets, but the accessibility of the stores within their own home.

‘Use it or lose it’ was the familiar slogan of so many village facilities, and now the towns face the same challenge. I expect the people of Chatteris were hoping that their new Tesco store would bring shoppers into the town to everyone’s benefit.

Now they have a white elephant in their midst and it will be interesting to see if anyone else can be induced, on looking in the For Sale columns, to take over one superstore and car park, never used.

The problem of retail is not much different from the problem with the NHS – we want it to be there and offering a perfect provision when we want it, but for the other six days a week, we couldn’t care less about it. The only difference is that in one case it means spending our money with local shopkeepers, and in the other it means forking out more tax, or else exercising enough self-control not to seek unnecessary medical help.

Society reflects the values of the people within it, and the British have become more demanding and less patient than used to be their hallmark. Looking out for the other fellow, all pulling together, the common good – these ideas have very little meaning nowadays.

I have several friends who do not possess a computer and have no idea how to use one, still less an iphone or a tablet of any kind except the ones they take in the morning to keep them going. No one really cares that they can’t shop online, or make appointments on line, or book tickets online, or move their money about online, even if they dared to.

The Forsyte Saga immortalised a ‘Forsyte’ as the epitome of the possessive instinct. Occasionally a Forsyte might see in the street someone in despair or on his beam ends, and think: "Poor devil, he’s having a rough time!” But this was quickly followed by the comforting thought: "Serve him right. He should manage his affairs better.”

Nowadays it’s just phrased differently: "Serve him right. He should be online.”

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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