Hart of the Matter
The development brief for the Gurteen site in Haverhill is likely to provoke a good deal of interest, argument and controversy over the next however many years it is until a scheme finally comes to fruition.
If the Station Yard site was important to the town, how much more so is this extensive rarity bang in the heart of the town - an obsolete textile mill?
These are two a penny in the north of England, and it might not be a bad idea to take a look at what towns there have achieved with similar redundant premises.
It is a definite challenge to the town, but also a magnificent opportunity to do something really worthwhile. And the people who are in the hot seat are not Gurteens, for whom market forces must rule because they have a business to run, but St Edmundsbury Borough Council (assuming that august body itself is not redeveloped in the meantime).
There has been a lot of mutual congratulation and back-slapping going on over the cinema development and Tesco – not without cause, because both have been managed very successfully.
But it was an open secret that Tesco had been trying to get into Haverhill for ages, while the cinema was an expensive spin-off from Cineworld’s development in Bury St Edmunds.
These were neat, quick-win situations, of which the council took good advantage. We may think something that takes five years to go through the planning stage is not quick, but then we are not all planners.
Basically, Tesco were going to come here anyway, somehow, and Cineworld took a lot of persuading – about £10m worth, I believe.
But the Gurteens site is a totally different kettle of fish, much more difficult, and much more of an acid test of what St Edmundsbury is really prepared to do for Haverhill.
If the council leaves it entirely to market forces, I fear we may end up with mostly, if not all, housing, and a great opportunity missed. If they had left the cinema to market forces, we would not have one.
But although the cinema was not cheap for the council, it was relatively easy to achieve – not particularly controversial, or labour-intensive or time-consuming, or with any revenue implications (that means paying ongoing costs for something you have created) - in short, an all-round Good Thing.
Involvement in what happens to the Gurteens site is likely to be far more complicated, controversial and time-consuming. But there is the opportunity to do something far more important, in many ways, than a superstore or a cinema.
There are currently on that site four items of major historical importance to Haverhill and which anyone with the least iota of common sense can see ought somehow to be gathered together.
The first is the splendid central factory building, with its Victorian Gothic frontage, probably the most impressive building in the town, although not at present seen as well as it might be.
The second is the original steam engine which powered the mill - Caroline, a magnificent piece of engineering, still in situ and in working order, and guaranteed to attract interest at a national level if it was powered up.
The third is a remarkable collection of fascinating items connected with the 225-year history of the factory which dominated the town’s economy, and its history, for much of that time.
And finally, there is another remarkable collection of items which is beginning to draw national interest - the computer museum, as yet still homeless.
Just up the road, in Haverhill Arts Centre, is another wide-ranging collection of Haverhill history, managed by Haverhill Local History Group, operating out of a single room, the constraints of which require the group to keep many of its items hidden away in storage – where? In Gurteens factory.
It doesn’t take more than the meanest intelligence to put these facts together and come up with the term ‘heritage centre’.
You only have to look at the unlikely places which have been turned into such heritage centres, attracting large numbers of tourists and associated leisure businesses, and boosting their town’s economies significantly – Grimsby harbour, for instance, or Barrow shipyards.
So, St Edmundsbury, how much do you really care about Haverhill? Do you just chuck us the easy stuff, like superstores and cinemas, or are you prepared to tackle something much more difficult, but something which would give the town the true civic pride which everyone keeps talking about trying to create?
Are you going to take on a truly enabling role on this site, or just sit back and see what happens – or what we get lumbered with?
Because, however nicely designed a residential scheme might be, it would represent a huge lost opportunity, which will never come again.