Hart of the Matter
Finding fault with council planners can be a bit of a turkey shoot from time to time, but we should always put it into context by asking what we would have done in the same situation if we had been in charge.
I was reminded of that the other day at the annual business ratepayers’ meeting when Harry from Deja Vu pointed out there was no sign anywhere to tell people where Haverhill town centre is.
It is an absolutely glaring omission and so completely obvious that you wonder how anyone could have missed it – but then, it had never occurred to me either, until that moment.
The point was made during discussion about what St Edmundsbury Borough Council has achieved in Haverhill over the past year, which can often descend into a ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ session.
This time, however, no one disputes the council has done a lot – the question now is how effective any of it is. Answering that question depends very much on your point of view, and the council has quite a talent for changing its stance to fit the facts.
For instance, there is Tesco. Most people thought Tesco was, if not a good idea, inevitable. It had to be accommodated, and the council was quite clear about where – which just happened to be on land the council itself owned. It was important, said the council, not to have another out-of-town store.
How the road layout was to relate to the store was a matter of hot debate, with the planners determined to go for pretty much what we now have, but Haverhill business people in favour of locating the road around the back of the store, to make it easier to integrate into the town.
As the council made such great play of the store being part of the town centre to draw shoppers in, as a sort of justification for accepting it in the first place, you might think planners would have gone along with that – especially as Tesco were agreeable.
But it was going to cost the council a bit more and, more fundamentally, it wasn’t the planners’ own idea, so it was shot down.
We were told ad nauseam that the connections between the store and the town centre would be of paramount importance. Regular readers of this column (in another place at that time) may remember I floated the slightly satirical idea of a glass bridge to allow pedestrians easy and attractive access between the two.
The problem I and many others feared was that the road would be a barrier, however many pelican crossings were put in place.
Last year the store opened with plenty of razzamatazz and we waited to see how it would affect town centre shops and shopping behaviour.
Well, the first pieces of evidence are beginning to appear, with the proposal from the council to raise car parking charges in its car parks because income has fallen due to Tesco’s free alternative.
People are parking in Tesco and walking into town to avoid paying. However, these are people who would have come into the town centre anyway. What we need to know is whether people are coming to Haverhill Tesco who would not otherwise have come here at all, and then taking the opportunity to stroll into the town centre and have a look around.
There is some evidence of increased footfall in Queen Street, which might indicate as much. But with no sign to give people directions, one cannot be sure the full benefit is being achieved. Only the other day I heard someone who has worked in Haverhill for 20 years asking colleagues for directions to Queen Street.
So the council’s argument is not yet proved, and you would expect councillors to be working overtime to make sure it was. Imagine my surprise last week, then, when I heard the following statement made by the council leader, with reference to getting people to use the council’s car parks.
“If everyone parks in Tesco,” he said, “they will be less likely to come into the town centre.”
The truth often emerges in unguarded remarks like this. And the truth is that the council has not done anywhere near enough to make sure that the town centre benefited from Tesco rather than being disadvantaged by it.
There is a good argument for saying it can be beneficial for a town centre to have a big store within it. There are plenty of examples around the country. But it will only happen if a really determined effort is made to link the two centres together.
At present it is just too much of a pain to have to descend the steps or the ramp and cross by the roundabout on the off chance of finding some more shops – unless, of course, you know they are there and it is saving you some money, which is why the parking habits have changed.
The council needs to realise that throwing capital at projects is not enough on its own. There is an ongoing need to make sure they remain effective.