Home Page It's the economy, stupid, at the root of decision-making 08/03/13

Haverhill Poll
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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

As I write this, our poll about whether or not people want Haverhill High Street fully pedestrianised is quite close to 50/50 in the run-up to Cllr Guy MacGregor’s visit on Monday.


The ‘overwhelming majority in favour’ that we are always being told about does not seem to have made its voice heard. Maybe it is made up mostly of older people who are not so techno-savvy as to access on-line news provision yet.


Nevertheless, it shows how anecdotal and subjective such polls can be. The same can be said of Suffolk County Council’s consultation, which only produced just over 100 replies. And it can be said of Haverhill Town Council’s poll of 750 people – not that many out of what we are now told by the 2011 census is nearly 28,000.


Then there is a different viewpoint altogether which says that what residents want is all very well, but in the end decisions have to be based on what is best for the town and its economy.


Even if there is a big majority in favour, should not the views of the traders and businesses which depend on the town centre take priority, or at least be given greater weight than those of a once-a-fortnight visitor or a five-minute shopper?


Once you start to take all these different elements into consideration you realise that this is not just a debate about pedestrianisation – about barriers, kerbstones, parking and so on. It is about something a lot more fundamental – decision-making.


It is about how we – Haverhill’s 28,000 residents – make decisions, or allow them to be made for us. Should the ultimate say rest with a councillor who will almost never come here and who was elected by the generally more affluent residents of Eye and Hoxne? You might say the obvious answer is no, but on the other hand who could be more objective than a complete outsider?


Should it be put in the hands of a Government planning inspector at a public inquiry? Would any more of the town’s 28,000 residents be heard there than are being heard at the moment? I doubt it and we would all, indirectly, have paid out a load of much-needed cash to achieve very little other than an actual decision.


And when we get an actual decision, one way or the other, which is what everyone will tell you we really need, how final will it be? The answer to that is a bit easier. If it’s in favour of pedestrianisation it will be pretty final because it will happen and one can’t see it all being dug up again. But if it isn’t, the debate will rumble on again as it has done for the past 50 years.


If a decision is going to be imposed on us from outside it will mean one of two things. Either we were incapable of presenting a united view, or we were too apathetic to try.


Judging from the amount of chat one sees and hears on the subject, it does not seem that apathy is the problem. The alternative – incapability – is probably not a comment on a fragmented or uninterested community, but on the power of individual interests.


Property in the town centre has a certain value and businesses are not charities, so they are not going to give away either their assets or their trade without a fight.


Those in favour of pedestrianisation needed to put together a much stronger case if they were going to win over the vested interests. After all, people are in business to make money. If the vested interests thought there was money to be made out of pedestrianisation, they might reconsider their position.


The irony is that those in favour are mostly in favour for economic reasons. It is not just about the physical dangers of shared space, although that is a factor. Proponents of the idea believe it is the way forward for the town centre to grow and improve by becoming a more attractive destination. They just haven’t said it very loudly.


This belief is impossible to quantify, or to prove, or to disprove. Again we run into anecdotal evidence of the ‘I went to such-and-such a town and they have traffic running right through the middle and it’s always busy’ kind, or the county council’s ‘it works very well in Felixstowe’.


But if – and it’s a big if – if pedestrianisation were to achieve everything its proponents suggest, the shops would benefit massively, the town’s economy would improve dramatically and Gurteens would suddenly find they had developers interested in taking on their site.


So why have those who favour closing the street been unable to convince their opponents of this utopian outcome? The answer is that they haven’t tried. They have been so hung up on the fact that it is the ‘right’ thing to do, because the current situation is dangerous, because drivers flout the law, because illegal parking makes the street look ugly, because the majority of residents supposedly want it.


And this, in a nutshell, is politics. The left says you do the morally right thing and hope the economic benefits follow. The right, however, says you do what makes economic sense and hope the results have a morally positive dimension. The same argument is going on nationally about ‘austerity’.


The proponents of pedestrianisation needed to have focused on the economic argument to a far greater degree. After all, as the traders have found, if you keep saying the same thing often enough and for long enough, people begin to believe it is true.


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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