Home Page One small step for planners, but what does it say about town centre? 13/04/12

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

Last weekís little planning decision about the store which currently houses Iceland in Haverhill High Street could be seen as a routine matter, barely worthy of any comment, or it could be seen as symptomatic of many of the fundamental problems currently afflicting the town centre.

 

On the face of it, this was a non-controversial application to make one shop front into two at some time in the future. No one raised any objections, except Haverhill Town Council, who have long been beating a drum about one of the main difficulties in attracting retailers to Haverhill being the lack of large premises available.

 

This was highlighted by the former town centre manager and has again been mentioned in connection with Destination Haverhill, the project being run by Kent Business School to develop solutions for improving the townís retail offer.

 

Nevertheless, the planners, as so often, find there are no planning grounds for refusing the application. The store was, at one time, two shops, and can easily be returned to that.

 

Of course, the reason there are no planning grounds in this case, as also in the case of the endless fast food shops, pawn shops and bookies which are taking over the town centre, is that the planning authority has not put in place any policies to make such changes difficult, and therefore any attempt to thwart them would probably fail at appeal, which would be costly, so no one wants to try it anyway.

 

But, while we have to resign ourselves to this, and hope that, if necessary, two smaller tenants are found quickly should the need arise, we should also ask why this application has come forward in the first place.

 

The Iceland lease will soon be up for renewal, we gather.  Iceland itself is facing the sort of challenges so many high street chains are facing and we donít know how its new owners would view its operations in Haverhill.

 

But it seems certain the landlords think there is a good chance theyíll not renew, or only want to renew in smaller premises. And if Iceland goes, they see little prospect of attracting a similar-sized retailer to take its place Ė or at least they want to have another string to their bow. Perhaps another bookies has already been sniffing around.

 

This is very different from the view of the town council that potential retailers are seeking larger premises. So who is right?

 

And, incidentally, who the flip are D&A 2095 Ltd, the faceless landlords at the centre of all this? I expect they are someoneís pension fund. Over the last 30 years so much of Haverhill town centre has fallen into this sort of hopeless ownership by people who donít know and donít care about the town centre, except for how much money they can make out of it.

 

St Edmundsbury Council has been trying to make overtures to the landlords and engage them in some sort of dialogue because, in the end, they probably hold one of the biggest keys to improving the town centre. Maybe thatís why they donít object to applications like this, and why they are continuing to be complicit in the burgeoning of bookies, pawn shops and fast food outlets.

 

In fact, there is quite a lot of wringing of civic hands each time another one bursts into flower, but whose fault is it?

 

A conspiracy theorist might be disposed to think it in the councilís interest to limit the number of competitors to its own giant vacant lot down in Jubilee Walk and, although that would be arrant nonsense, it is true that the council has made its own bed with regard to the partition of the town centre.

 

It decided to locate the cinema complex in Ehringshausen Way (under pressure from Cineworld, we are led to believe), a decision which made the whole town centre concept totally dependent on the success of Jubilee Walk.

 

It also decided, despite much advice to the contrary, to locate the Tesco store on the other side of the main road, with inconvenient crossing facilities, thus keeping it separated from Queen Street.

 

People do park in Tesco to shop in the town because itís free, and the council loses parking revenue, but they do it by using the end of the car park and walking down by the leisure centre, or via Aldi. Traders I speak to in Queen Street have not experienced much benefit, if any, from the new store.

 

Tesco, I notice, have just made another significant investment in their store and, by all accounts, they need to, because itís still a bit of a struggle, the rumour factory says.

 

The trouble is, all these elements are so disparate and there does not seem to be a coherent plan about any of it. That is not so surprising when we see three different councils, all with differing policies and differing understandings of the dynamics.

 

We can but hope that One Haverhill, or Vision 2031, or Destination Haverhill, or any other of the numerous initiatives floating around can pull these strands together into a cohesive strategy. Or better still, all three of them....

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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