Hart of the Matter
After yesterday’s Haverhill Area Working Party meeting it is difficult to choose which of about half a dozen issues to focus in on this week. The meeting, its first for six months, actually covered some ground, and what came up were a series of revelations.
Leaving aside the matter of the Haverhill Head sculpture until I can put together a sentence about it which does not include a rude word, and passing over the ridiculous impasse over the Co-op, the baffling creation process for the town centre masterplan, the attractive plans for commemorating the World War One victims in East Town Park, and a series of other issues, I think the discussions about the market are worth a moment’s thought.
In many ways they provided a microcosm of the whole issue of the town centre, because the same question lies at the heart of both. What are we trying to achieve in our town centre? Until we answer that, we cannot take the process any further without wasting our time.
There was a stark indication of where the dichotomy lies as soon as the idea of a farmers’ market came up. The borough council’s new markets development manager has put together some interesting events to try to raise the profile of Haverhill’s provisions market, which is a crucial element in the town centre – probably more so that in many other towns.
The reason is that the market now provides the only alternative to the supermarkets and national chains as far as food goes in the town. We no longer have an independent greengrocer, butcher, fishmonger, baker or anything else for that matter, apart from the market traders.
This is a quite appalling situation for a town of 27,000 people and is, presumably, one of the areas of retail which any improvement in the town centre would aim to address.
So all power to Sharon Fairweather and her efforts to raise the profile of the market. Sadly, our councillors seem either to have accepted the current situation, or to be blithely oblivious as to how they contribute towards it.
Before I go on, I should make it clear that I fully realise that Haverhill has a lot of people who struggle on very low incomes, and for whom the supermarkets, including Iceland, are the only choice, and price is not just the main but the only priority.
But surely, they are catered for? Surely Iceland, Aldi, Tesco or Sainsbury’s is a reasonable range of alternatives, although one could always, of course, wish for more. Many townspeople, we are told, travel to Asda in Cambridge or Bury, but you need to be able to drive to have that extra choice.
However, is that all we are aiming to provide for? Is that what town centre improvement means? If so, why on earth would any come here to shop? They can, presumably, shop in exactly the same places at home – that is the point of supermarkets, that they are consistent.
If someone lives in a village, they have to drive to shop anyway, so they have a choice of towns. Why choose to come here?
This is exactly the same argument as I put forward over Cineworld. It was nice and convenient for Haverhill people, but why would it attract anyone from outside? They have their own exactly the same.
This is provision for the least mobile, the least adventurous and those with the least spending power. And that is what we get all the time.
One of the market initiatives is a farmers’ market next week. A councillor commented that this always made her think of one at Linton she visited once and was astounded at the prices. She hoped this would be more competitive.
Well, in our household we do most of our provision shopping at Linton’s monthly farmers’ market and Haverhill provisions market, and it costs very little more than it used to when we patronised the supermarkets in town, and the quality is astronomically better.
Not only is it locally produced, so it’s very ‘sustainable’, but it is in a different world when it comes to flavour. I struggle to eat meat from a supermarket nowadays because it is generally so boring.
Even the little bit extra that this costs is, of course, sadly beyond the reach of some, but theirs is not the whole story of Haverhill. People who are looking for taste, nutrition and a direct relationship with a producer have to go elsewhere at present. Why should we not aim to retain their spending within the town?
Experience shows that this cannot be done quickly. You only have to look at the olive stall or the spice stall which have tried Haverhill market and given up because there was not enough trade. They can’t stay for long without some form of subsidy. But that is the sort of thing we should be investing in, rather than another lot of cut-price trading because, in the end, it will bring a return once potential customers realise they have options within the town.
Councillors welcomed the Trade For A Tenner initiative, which is a splendid notion to help tiny start-up businesses get going. But that is nothing to do with town centre improvement – unless the businesses are filling a particularly attractive niche in the market for visiting shoppers.
At the moment, the vision for Haverhill just seems to be more cheap stuff because that’s all people can afford. And then we wonder why it is so difficult to break the cycle of the town’s downmarket reputation.