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.”