Home Page If we want real improvements it's time for business to get its hands dirty 26/10/12

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

Whoopee! Another £10,000 to spend on Haverhill town centre. Despite losing out on the main round of bids under the Mary Portas town centre retail initiative, Haverhill turned out this week to be a lucky loser, and has been given £10,000 as a sort of consolation prize.


So, what are we going to spend it on? Remember, we already have £750,000 earmarked for improvements to the high street environment, from the St Edmundsbury Borough Council growth fund.


That’s caused enough of a headache in itself, because anything cosmetic is likely to be rather wasted if traffic is still going to be thundering through the street day and night. Some has been put aside for the public art project – a giant head made up like the Face of Haverhill and broadcasting from monitors in its eyes – about £10,000, I believe.


But it’s still difficult to see how any of these initiatives are actually going to produce any results, whether we have pedestrianisation or not.


Long-time readers of my witterings both here and in another place may remember me blowing the trumpet of Macclesfield as a shopping centre down the years.


Most of my holidays are taken tramping around the higher ground of the north of England, and from time to time on the way home from the Lakes or while staying in the Peak District, we have called in to that former centre of silk weaving and enjoyed its range of shops, particularly in the food line.


We’ve just had a week in the Peak District and with it another chance to visit. All is not brilliant in the north of England economically at present and Macclesfield is not immune. There are empty shops and it doesn’t look as prosperous as in the heyday of Posh and Becks – nostalgia for which can still be seen in the name of one eating place called Nosh and Breks.


The town is about twice the size of Haverhill, and has a super indoor market, part of an indoor precinct. But it also has a central car park outside a big store, rather in the same relationship as Jubilee Walk and the Co-op. Unfortunately for Macclesfield the store was TJ Hughes which went under not that long ago, so now it’s empty – rather like the Co-op.


Luckily there’s a town centre Tesco opposite so the area is not entirely deserted, but it isn’t an ideal impression and it reinforced for me the importance of St Edmundsbury getting their finger out and finding an occupier for the Co-op.


Nevertheless, one shop doesn’t make a retail centre and, for all the hype, even Tesco only brought one or two national chains on their coat-tails – Costa, WH Smith, that’s about it.


We’re always being told what a forward-looking town Haverhill is and how successful its businesses are and in many ways that is true. But you wouldn’t think it, to look at the support services to business in the town.


There is limited overnight accommodation, particularly at the upper end of the market - where you might expect visiting chief executives to stay, for example. As for a place for large-scale conferences of major anniversary functions – well, ask the big Haverhill companies where they go and you’ll find it isn’t in the town.


And if the visiting customer expresses an interest in going out for a meal or doing a bit of shopping, ask the businesses if they recommend Haverhill High Street. And when the very important customer requires transport the dozen or so miles from this isolated community to the nearest railhead, ask them if they use a Haverhill taxi firm.


Somehow, the business community must bear some responsibility in all this. It’s all very well being successful in China or the States because that, after all, is what creates employment in the town where your business is based. But just employing people is not the whole story.


Employers used to take a rather more holistic approach. But when the top brass with the spending power live miles away from the workplace and rarely use any of the local facilities it is hardly surprising that there is not enough business here to support up-market services, whether it be shops, catering, leisure or accommodation.


You often get the impression that Haverhill’s businesses feel they succeed in spite of their location, and that they are based here purely because it’s cheap and reasonably central in East Anglia. They may vaunt it overtly locally, but when it really matters, they do their best to hide, or at least gloss over, their CB9 postcode.


This is the challenge for the Chamber of Commerce and for all the other business associations who spend much of their time creating networking opportunities on the cheap in Haverhill but for many of whom their social life occurs somewhere with a little more cachet and at a safe distance.


We often hear calls for leadership in our community. Unfortunately for the business community, the best kind of leadership is by example. It might be tough at the moment, but if no one ever starts it will never get any better.

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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