Hart of the Matter
It looks as though the scheme to redevelop the former Project site in Haverhill is going to come to an exciting climax worthy of a Victorian melodrama next week.
There are the stock characters all lined up to do battle – the wicked, grasping Sir Developer, the poor, innocent, endangered Miss Town Centre, and the honest, true-hearted Jack Planner riding in on a mission of rescue.
Or is it the other way round? Is it the evil, megalomaniac Sir Council strangling the sweet, impoverished Miss Haverhill Shopper, and the public-spirited Jack Developer fighting to free her?
The story so far (in case you missed it) is as follows: HPG Developments want to bring the huge Project factory site in Ehringshausen Way back into use after the best part of a decade, by investing around £12million (that’s about what it cost to get the Chilean miners out) in a mixed scheme of business units, shops, a restaurant and a builders’ merchants (Wickes).
The site is only zoned for business and industrial uses at the moment, so that immediately causes a bureaucratic situation, because councils don’t like going against their own policies.
In a variation on Peter Cook auditioning the one-legged Mr Spigot for the role of Tarzan, the council are saying: “Your business units are fine. We have nothing whatsoever against your business units.”
The sticking point is the shops and the restaurant. The council’s planners, supported by a report they have commissioned, think these will take trade away from the town centre, which is described as ‘fragile’. They also claim there is a better alternative site for such shops – on the allotments in Duddery Hill – which has not been fully investigated yet.
The developers say the shops will be for the sale of bulky goods, so people will have to travel by car, therefore the town centre argument is irrelevant. They have also, by the way, offered £250,000 towards town centre improvement works. It would be entirely wrong to describe that as an inducement.
The decision will be taken by St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s development control committee on Thursday at a special meeting convened at the new football complex, and you can go along and watch the match – or even take part if you register beforehand. It promises to be a good game.
There are arguments on both sides. I don’t buy the case for protecting the town centre. As long as you go on saying the town centre is fragile it will continue to seem fragile. In fact the independent part of it isn’t fragile at all, it’s very robust.
But just caving in to developers who decide they want to put facilities where it suits them is a dangerous precedent. So the planners have a point. There is also the small matter of an objection by Anglian Water, because users of the new scheme might start complaining about smells from the nearby sewage plant.
I don’t buy that one either, because they ought to be able to control their odours better, but it is relevant because Anglian Water are apparently ready to be combative if the scheme is refused and the developers take it to appeal.
If a council thinks it might face a costly appeal alone, it can become less courageous in refusing plans, but if it has a heavyweight partner it feels less constrained.
But to return to the argument about policy and whether developers should be able to overturn it, the council may have some difficulty taking the moral high ground here.
However sound an argument may be, it is undermined if you have recently gone against it yourself. And St Edmundsbury Council has form in this regard, less than 200 yards from this site.
Three years ago policy meant nothing when the council gave permission to itself to build a cinema and a set of restaurants on land which was not zoned for anything of the kind.
We are told Cineworld would not accept any other site, so there was no alternative – no ‘sequential’ consideration of other sites, no questioning of how this might affect either the arts centre’s cinema programme or the town centre’s restaurants and fast food outlets.
It was, the council grandly explained, the top of the wish-list of Haverhill residents and was announced as a fait accompli. The council claimed enormous credit for persuading Cineworld to consider a presence in Haverhill.
Of course, we had to foot the bill - £10million or so, I seem to remember – for the buildings which Cineworld and the associated restaurants graciously agreed to occupy.
Well, the top of the wish-list for Haverhill residents now, I would suggest, is greater choice in the town’s retail offer. And it wouldn’t even cost us a penny.
I don’t like developers offering sums of money in a sort of quid pro quo. It is always a lot better if it seems as though the planners have screwed it out of them. Still, there it is...
I am not certain about the effects of this scheme. I don’t think anyone can be. Neither could they be sure about the cinema scheme, but it seems to have been reasonably successful in the end.
I just don’t see how you can justify being flexible with one and dogmatic with the other.