Hart of the Matter
There was the inevitable whimpering this week as car parking charges were raised in St Edmundsbury, including Haverhill.
The new charges come into effect at the end of March, but I suppose it would be too much to hope that Haverhillís free parking on Sundays will by then be confined to proper car parks and not the high street.
Free parking is going to continue on Sundays because councillors feel there is a only a limited retail offer open in Haverhill. I see the Chamber of Commerce would like there to be an hourís free parking available in the town on any day of the week.
Of course, as a shopper, one has sympathy with this view. As a shopkeeper one might have even more sympathy with it, except that the great majority of Haverhillís shops are national chains, rather than independents, so the amount of self-interest in that view is not great.
It is a view which the chamber has held pretty consistently down the years since car parking charges first came in. Those old enough will remember charges first came in at the Jubilee Walk car park and were very unpopular, particularly with me as I used to park there during the day and had to find somewhere else.
I was slowly chased from car park to car park until my stingyness found me tramping some distance into work from Crowland Road, until there were no spaces left there as everyone was doing the same.
But times have changed, and I think most motorists now expect to pay for their car parking during the day. Some towns have clung on to free parking, but they are few and far between.
Anyway, I take issue with the view that Haverhill is such an unattractive prospect to shoppers that we must offer free parking in a desperate effort to draw people in.
Surely the aim should be that the town provides such good services within such a pleasant and convenient environment that people are happy to pay at least a nominal amount Ė or at any rate are not put off by it.
Those who plead for free parking imply rather publicly that that is not the case. Either that, or that shoppers round here are more mean than in other parts of the country.
Of course it would be nice not to have to pay for anything. But car parking charges generate income which, we are assured, is ploughed back by the council into better services and a better environment.
If we want St Edmundsbury to continue in its recently-found conversion to the idea that Haverhill is worth spending money and effort on, we perhaps should not grudge the council using every effort to subsidise that from such income streams, as long as they are not directly harmful to the local economy.
I canít see that an extra 10p is going to cripple anyone. As for the argument put forward that people often donít have the right change and have to put 50p or £1 in instead, I think it betrays more about where such anecdotes come from than anything else. Surely most people nip into a shop and buy something small like a newspaper, to get some change?
Anyway, the increased charges will mean such people are less out of pocket than they were before by being so lazy.
But the fact that car parking charges are such an issue in Haverhill does betray the less palatable fact that, to a certain degree, we are still stuck in the past, for all the talk about being a forward-looking town.
We are still looking to cater for the bottom of the market, to be the cheapest, to undercut bigger and more stylish centres.
The town still has a long way to go to gain the civic pride and confidence to say: ĎHere we are, this is what we have to offer and if you want to be part of it or take advantage of it, you should pay a fair price towards its continued progress.í
What is more, many business people here are still not really thinking like that, and if they still see the old problem Haverhill when they look at the town, how can they expect outsiders to see anything different?
There have been a lot of calls for the town to be better marketed by the council or other agencies. But marketing begins at home, with a genuine belief in your own product and the confidence that, if you were a potential customer, you would want to buy it.
We have to believe that, given the choice, we would choose Haverhill as a shopping or leisure destination. Then we will begin to persuade others.