Hart of the Matter
Haverhill seems to be fated to muddle along in a series of incoherent and unjoined-up jerks of planning and development.
The latest has been the surprise announcement that Hamlet Green – the former Project Office Furniture site – is at last to materialise as a development for Lidl, Pets At Home and Home Bargains, plus one other as yet unsecured.
This site was, of course, included in the Vision 2031 document because it has been in the pipeline for the best part of a decade, so in that sense it was no surprise that something should eventually come to fruition on it.
However, the difference between what was envisaged before the global economic crash and what is now being proposed serves to highlight how the retail scene has changed and how everyone now seems to be adapting their aspirations to those changes.
If you remember, when the site was first proposed there was a tremendous planning battle to get it through. Town centre traders were very concerned about the effect it would have on the central area, and they were not alone.
Both town and borough councillors felt they had to stand up for the current traders, even though a redevelopment of the site in some form was highly desirable.
The problem was that this was not part of the town centre. While one could claim - with some justification as it has since proved – that shoppers will walk from the Tesco car park into the town centre to visit other shops, and while we already knew the same situation pertained with regard to Aldi, which is even better situated, this could not be claimed for Hamlet Green.
It is just too far to walk for most people, and not along pedestrian-friendly areas either, but crossing a busy main road and walking alongside it, or winding through residential locations. Therefore the empty site was not included in the Town Centre Masterplan recently devised and adopted.
But if it was not part of the town centre, and people virtually had to drive to it, would it not take trade away from the town centre without offering anything in return – rather in the way Sainsbury’s has done for 25 years. After all, if you are driving it doesn’t matter whether it’s a couple of hundred yards away or a mile and a half.
The compromise over planning permission was reached with the undertaking that Hamlet Green would be a home for ‘bulky goods’ retailers – stores where you need to have a car to carry away what you buy.
Even this was quite a stretch when you remember the planning fuss there was over what percentage of floorspace Tesco were going to be allowed to devote to white goods.
The announcement that the ‘anchor’ retailer was to be building supplies store Wickes may have calmed some of the livelier fears, and all was due to go ahead. The mammoth Project Office Furniture building was demolished and the site cleared because we were told this was necessary and would be tidier.
In passing, one might glance at the same argument which has been levelled by Gurteens in favour of demolishing buildings without actually having new occupiers ready to replace.
But then came the crash, and then Focus pulling out at the other end of town to be replaced by B&Q, which sent Wickes scuttling away, unprepared for such a big confrontation, and the site remained a derelict eyesore at the eastern entrance to Haverhill.
Nearly seven years later we finally see some movement, but this time the scenario is very different, and no one seems that bothered.
The anchor store is now Lidl, a competitor not only for Aldi and Tesco – and who cares about them, because they are big enough to look after themselves – but also for the much more vulnerable street market and some smaller stores.
Furthermore, someone who parked in Tesco or Aldi and walked into the town centre to do some other bits and bobs of shopping, may now be more attracted by Lidl and therefore no longer prepared to walk into town.
We are told that Lidl will attract new shoppers, and so benefit the town by creating what is known in business circles as ‘a larger pie’. We’ll see. I don’t know about you but I rarely drive from one supermarket to another.
Now I am not opposed to the arrival of Lidl because, like Aldi, they will be attractive to me and to many others by being cheap and of surprisingly good quality, something which those who look down on these low-overhead stores have yet to realise.
But I just point out how our perspectives have changed in seven years. Something which would have been unthinkable and opposed by every fibre of our beings seven years ago, is now welcomed as a solution to a long-standing problem.
Of course, there is another factor to put into the mix – North-East Haverhill. With a further 3,000-plus homes planned over the next 15 years there will automatically be ‘a larger pie’ in Haverhill, and one could argue that another major food store will be needed. But that won’t be Lidl’s achievement – it would have happened anyway.
It is also noteworthy how Haverhill never seems to manage to expand at the other end of the market. Just as Tesco did not bring in a new section of society to shop in Haverhill, because we already had Sainsbury’s, so neither will Lidl because we already have Aldi.
The spokesman for the Howard Group, who are developing Hamlet Green, told Haverhill Town Council this week that the town was now well-covered across the range of foodstores.
This is manifestly untrue because there is no Marks & Spencers, there is no Waitrose and there are no independent specialist delicatessens, greengrocers, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, etc, etc, except on the market.
Take a trip to many a much smaller town than Haverhill and you will see what I mean. So let us not fondly imagine all is now well. It’s an improvement on a derelict site. Whoopee.