Hart of the Matter
Do you remember Vision 2031? Earlier this year there was a lot about it because it’s the fancy name for the consultation about the development framework for Haverhill.
At various meetings, exhibitions and drop-in sessions, people were invited to put forward their ideas about how they would like the town to be in 20 years’ time. Now the results are beginning to be assessed, and they make interesting reading.
The first thing to say is that the sample is not large and the responses sent in to the planners at St Edmundsbury Borough Council don’t even number 200. But rather more people attended the events and made their views known there, so there is a wider database of ideas that individuals came up with.
However, analysis of the responses so far is hardly surprising. The highest number (31) said there were not enough shops or variety of shops due to closures, and a need to attract new retail and big name shops and develop the shopping centre.
Next on the list, with 15 - poor image/reputation of the town and need to overcome and develop the High Street. Then it’s single figures, led by eight who think there is a need for improved public services/facilities to prevent need to travel out of town, and seven who feel there is a lack of facilities for teenagers.
Typically these are basically criticisms, not ideas for how they can be achieved or solved. But it does show that the things which most concern people revolve around the high street and its inability to provide the attraction people expect.
There are a lot of other issues in the town, and large numbers of them are touched upon in the responses, and even larger numbers of them brought up in the individual comments at the events. But my guess is that even if all these were counted and analysed to within an inch of their lives they would produce roughly similar statistics, so, for once, a small sample is probably about right.
Quite where this leads us is less clear, because I think most of us could have predicted this outcome before we started. The individual ideas may have produced something new and innovative – although I doubt it – but the responses were always going to home in on the main cause of the problem, which initially appears to be economic.
I see that Holland and Barrett in the high street are pointing out that they are not closing down despite the shop lease sign on the property, which is a good thing, although the rumour of closure did not come as a surprise to me. Other closures have cast a bit of a shadow over Haverhill’s much-vaunted potential.
But the heart of the problem is not purely economic. If you wanted to see the issue that underlies all of this, you only had to turn out on those days when there was a French or Italian market in Queen Street.
You might think this was a sign of progress, but the markets were just brought in by agencies keen to improve the town’s shopping offer – indeed, the idea is being promoted further with the notion that niche retailers could start off with little stall-type shops in the town.
To see the problem you needed to watch the shoppers’ reaction. I watched quite carefully, on a couple of cold and wet days, which were not shopping-friendly, and I have never seen such a parade of suspicious faces. They were suspicious of the traders, suspicious of the food and suspicious of the drink.
This picture flashed into my mind the other day when I got on the wrong bus to travel from Addenbrooke’s Hospital into Cambridge city centre. Lots of them go there, but by very different routes, and I happened on one that went via the whole length of Mill Road.
Mill Road is a wonderfully cosmopolitan, yet friendly community made up of almost every nationality on earth and it has the shops and restaurants to match. Almost every little emporium we passed made me want to go in and explore, or sample the menu of each café. It reminded me of my university years in London.
And (Heaven help me!) I thought: "This is the 21st century world. Haverhill high street is barely out of the 1960s.”
Haverhill town centre is almost entirely made up of struggling little branches of national chains, cut-price short-term businesses out to make a quick buck, fast food outlets and a few worthy local traders, precious to us who use them, but insular and not able to attract new generations or, more importantly, newcomers.
In short, it is like English cricket – dull, slow, defensive and sometimes, as now, smug and pleased with itself for surviving. It seems to have entirely passed the English cricket establishment by that the game is an entertainment, and unless it is entertaining, it will die. Shopping in Haverhill, alas, is like watching England in Cardiff, and shopping in Cambridge is like switching over and watching the final of the Indian Premier League.
And suspicious English cricket fans, or shoppers, who turn their noses up at this new world, will end up with nothing.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.