Home Page There's no quick fix likely for Haverhill's town centre shoppers 01/04/11

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

So what, in the end, did the town centre shopping survey tell us? It said shoppers want a wider range of non-food products, and would like to see big national chains like Marks and Spencer in town.


This is no surprise, because it’s what people tell you every time you ask them – at meetings, in the street, in the pub, wherever the shopping limitations of Haverhill are discussed.


It is also no surprise to learn from experts that it is unlikely that large national chains will dip their toes in the Haverhill water any time soon. Size and location are put forward as the reasons – too small and in the wrong place.


M&S did make an appearance in Sudbury town centre, albeit just a food store, and I believe it is no longer there. Sudbury is quite a bit smaller than Haverhill, so I guess this was another of those moves based on what the 2001 census tells us about the sort of people who populate a town.


The 2011 census may show Haverhill in a better light, but it will be a couple of years before that information is available.


It was rumoured that the arrival of Tesco would signal a review of Haverhill’s potential among other national retailers. WH Smith apparently arrived here on the back of Tesco’s decision, but apart from Costa Coffee there has not been much to show since.


One of the prime High Street premises has been refurbished as a betting shop. Incidentally, while the shop front design is laudably sympathetic to the original building, it would have been a lot more so painted a weathered honey-colour rather than the scintillating white that smacks of Chigwell Towers.


Quite what staunch non-conformist Daniel Gurteen would have thought of his home becoming a betting shop I don’t know, but he doesn’t appear to have kicked up about it being a cinema or a bingo hall, so I guess he’s moved with the times.


The survey suggests Haverhill should attempt to distinguish itself from its competitors such as Bury and Cambridge – presumably by not having the presence of many national chains.


There is something to be said for this. I’m not much of a shopper, but it bores me to see the same stores with the same shop fronts, selling the same products in identical pedestrianised high streets wherever you go.


That is why I like Saffron Walden – compact, varied, distinctive, independent, tasteful and only ten miles away. I shouldn’t think it’s much more than half the size of Haverhill, so how does it do it?


"Oh, you can’t compare,” people say. "It’s a well-off place. Shoppers have much more disposable income than those in Haverhill.”


The same could be said of Newmarket, which is far less conveniently designed, or Sudbury, which is twice as far away. Saffron Walden differs from Haverhill in that it is the administrative centre of its district, not the second town.


But all these towns have a social mix of residents, and they have catchment areas which are not as populous, and no more well-heeled than Haverhill’s.


Haverhill’s continuing problem is the failure to attract shoppers from its own catchment area, let alone other towns’. People in the villages around mostly don’t think of it as a retail centre, although they may use its services out of necessity.


The survey suggests the ‘re-positioning’ of Haverhill’s retail offer could be achieved by trialling businesses to fill the gaps via stall on the market – like putting seedlings in compost and watching them grow. Like seedlings they would need sun and rain, which would be provided by effective marketing, in the town and in the villages around and in neighbouring towns.


Haverhill would be promoted as a trendy place to shop, with its new niche businesses highlighted. This is a decent idea, but it has to be orchestrated carefully.


If you don’t get the business quickly and regularly enough, the seedlings will die (or go away again), and then the hordes of shoppers, attracted by the marketing, will be disappointed at finding Haverhill much the same as ever, and never come back again.


If it was that easy to change the outside image of Haverhill it would have been done 30 years ago, because that is how long the issue has been seen as central to improving the town.


Unfortunately it is deeds, rather than words, on which shoppers tend to judge whether a town centre has improved what it has to offer.


Of course, it all depends on the direction in which one is trying to effect change. Moving downmarket is extremely easy, going the other way is much more difficult.


Experts might think Haverhill could be turned successfully into the cut-price centre of East Anglia, and that might increase footfall in the town, but whether the residents would all appreciate it is a different matter.


From whatever point of view you examine the problem, you can’t help the feeling that this is only going to work if retailers, probably independent and possibly quite small, are prepared to make some serious investment in the town over a considerable period of time.


This is not a propitious time to attract that, but there might turn out to be considerable rewards down the line for anyone who was brave enough to take the plunge.

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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