Home Page Retail departures require thought but not panic 27/05/11

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

It’s always the same in this plate-spinning life – the minute you get one thing balanced right, something else wobbles off and goes wrong, and Haverhill is no exception.


A couple of weeks ago there was a pleasant feeling of progress as the planners finally agreed to the Hamlet Green development on the former Project site and the way also seemed to be cleared for the research park at Hanchet End.


But meanwhile, back in the high street, new challenges were surfacing. New Look, Bon Marche and Holland and Barrett all seem to be upping sticks. On top of that, there is the uncertainty over the future of Focus since the group went into administration.


So the town’s retail offer is under the microscope once again. These big commercial concerns don’t let on the details which influence their decisions, but the talk is that some of this is due to an increase in rents.


In the case of Holland and Barrett I can’t say I am surprised. There rarely seemed to be many customers in there and, frankly, it didn’t strike me as a Haverhill sort of shop, which is depressing, but a fact of commercial life.


Rents of all kinds are generally lower in Haverhill than in surrounding towns. That is one of the challenges of the research park, because it won’t be viable unless it can push office space rent levels up above those currently in evidence in the town.


So increases may be precipitated by the general feeling that Haverhill is on the up and property owners ought to be able to get a return which is more in keeping with East Anglia in general and the Cambridge area in particular.


But businesses will only be able to afford that if the town can support them in the way that other towns in the area do, and at present people in the Haverhill area do not appear to be capable of doing that.


The Focus issue is more complex, and I wonder what sort of cat the latest developments have thrown among the Haverhill pigeons.


I see that Kingfisher (B&Q) and the group which owns Wickes have shown an interest in taking over some Focus stores. Wickes, of course, has been one of the heavyweights behind HPG’s scheme to redevelop the old Project site.


In fact, Wickes is the only retailer to have actually signed an agreement with the developer, so William Jewson of HPG told town councillors a few weeks ago.


It may be that McDonalds were waiting for planning permission to be confirmed, so they may have signed up by now but, for Wickes, the landscape has now changed dramatically.


Depending on what they want, they could now more easily get into Haverhill by taking over Focus. Perhaps they want somewhere bigger, or on a site closer to the town centre. If so, do they want B&Q coming in a year before they can get set up and ready to open?


Maybe they might like the idea of taking over Focus until their new site is ready, and then having some control over who takes it over from them when they move out. Of course, Focus may only be a leased site anyway. Many retail giants do not actually own the properties from which they carry out their trading.


The irony of a lot of this is that we were told that the arrival of Tesco meant that national chains were now keen to follow suit, witness WH Smith and Costa Coffee. Now we see some of them pulling out.


Is this the first real sense of the economic crunch hitting Haverhill? Is there a lot more to come? However promising a town’s future may be, that doesn’t stop the effect of the national downturn on the bigger retail chains, many of which are now under pressure.


Just because a retail chain is big, even nationwide, that doesn’t mean, as it used to in my youth, that it is gold-plated and guaranteed to last. Look at Woolworths.


So where does this leave Haverhill, in commercial terms? I guess that is the question taxing wiser heads than mine in the corridors of local government and among the town’s business leaders.


But Haverhill has a history of moving two steps forward and one back. It may make things rather slower than we would like, but at least it represents some forward progress.


This may just be a little blip, but even if it isn’t and there is more to come, it is time for Haverhill to show its natural and much-vaunted resilience. We may find that the premises which become empty will be taken over by even more attractive businesses, the sort we have been pleading for in recent years.


The last I heard there was some talk of New Look relocating in the town, which would be a start.


So it is not a time for panicking yet, but is a time for public and private sector to put their shoulders to the wheel and maximise Haverhill’s potential and its image as a place with an exciting and lucrative future.


But, most crucially, there should be thought given to each brick in repairing this breach. At least let’s not make the same mistake as happened when Iceland took over Woolworths without anyone making the effort to achieve a rear entrance and a simple, easy walk through from the car park to the town centre.

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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