Hart of the Matter
My hope that the first public forum of ONE Haverhill for the best part of three years might produce something interesting was not disappointed, although my secondary hope that someone might call for their board meetings to be open to the public was not rewarded.
That was surprising, as it has been a constant theme of recent public meetings of all kinds when issues have been referred to ONE Haverhill.
However, the meeting produced enough to show that there is still a wide democratic deficit which ONE Haverhill has to overcome with the general public. If it is not to be done by opening meetings to the public, then someone has to come up with a different solution.
There was some categorical assertion that ONE Haverhill is not a political organisation and that politics have never entered into any of its deliberations, which most people present found to be a merciful relief.
This, of course, is a good reason for keeping the meetings in private. When politicians have no one to hear what they are saying they often turn, as if by magic, into quite reasonable people prepared to work constructively with everyone else. The fear is that opening meetings to the public would break the spell, and I can quite appreciate that.
Sadly, these encouraging assertions were immediately undermined by what board members said within the public meeting, when they appeared to all be on side in perpetuating the myths of Haverhill history as created by St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s propaganda machine.
We heard, without challenge from any board members, how the last town centre masterplan put together by the borough council in 2004 had been a great success, leading to the attraction of Tesco and the Cineworld complex to the great benefit of all the people of Haverhill.
In fact, as we all know, this masterplan was a signal failure. Tesco were already lined up on Station Yard, the cinema complex was not mentioned - not being, at that stage, even a gleam in a planner’s eye – and none of the few other interesting ideas put forward within the plan have happened at all.
That plan was leaked early to me by the late lamented Cllr Gordon Cox, both of us disappointed to find there was hardly anything new or ambitious in it at all.
I also remember at the launch of that plan asking the leader of St Edmundsbury where the money was going to come from to make it happen. He, quite rightly as I thought, said the borough did not have that sort of money. It would have to ‘prime the pumps’ with improvement works and hope to attract in developers to do the heavy lifting.
As it turned out, things took a very different direction. The borough, in the process of dealing with the Cattle Market redevelopment in Bury St Edmunds and deciding to go for the vastly expensive Apex arts venue as well, became acutely aware that it was open to serious criticism for spending money in Bury and not in Haverhill.
So it looked around for a sop to alleviate the situation and, finding some outdated wish-list in a dusty file in the borough’s bottom drawer, it thought: ‘Cinema!’ It was already dealing with Cineworld over the Bury facility, so it leapt to the conclusion that it could ‘enable’ a similar facility in Haverhill by funding the building. So it had the money after all, but only to be spent in the way it wanted. I presume if it had similarly subsidised a store for M&S instead, they might have agreed to come here.
There’s no need to rake over familiar old ground, but the result was that within months of the masterplan coming out, it was ripped up to suit the needs of where Cineworld wanted to be – which turned out to be a disastrously wrong location for the rest of the town centre.
Meanwhile the borough also contrived to shoot down Haverhill Chamber of Commerce’s very sensible idea that the main road should be routed around the back of Tesco, thus integrating the store with the town centre – an idea which Tesco themselves had gone along with – because it was going to cost them an extra £1m.
So what the 2004 masterplan actually delivered was a store in the wrong place to save money, a cinema in the wrong place at a vast cost and little or no redevelopment of empty sites because the house-building slowed down, partly due to the crash, but also due to Suffolk County Council’s earlier decision that Haverhill must not be allowed to grow too big.
You may remember one of the first of many surveys, carried out by a top national team, which identified that Haverhill could grow to 40,000, but which both Suffolk and St Edmundsbury sternly resisted, no doubt fearing a parallel growth in the town’s regional importance.
And at this week’s meeting we were told Haverhill would be at 35,000 population by 2031, and that would be a tipping point. This is an old mantra we have heard over and over again.
Of course, by the time we get to the notional tipping point, it will have moved up higher. It always does. When we were at 22,000 (or thought we were), we were told it was 25,000. Now the census tells us we are at 27,000, we are told it is 35,000. Curiously, it is nearly always at the distant target of the current local plan.
To hear this mythology being followed on ONE Haverhill by councillors of all parties is disappointing. If keeping politics out of it means towing a one-party line, the organisation will never have either the ambition of vision the town needs, or the whole-hearted support of the public.
No doubt someone will say this is all past history, and why don’t people talk about ONE Haverhill’s triumphs with apprenticeships instead? Brilliant as the success of that piece of work is, it is now up and running, so setting it up is also in the past. The town centre masterplan, and how to make it watertight from external manipulation, is the future.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.