Home Page Tiny signs of change must grow to encourage the private sector 28/01/11

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Hart of the Matter

In a week when Andy Gray and Richard Keys discovered painfully what happens to you when you don’t adapt to changing times, it was encouraging to notice the odd crack appearing in some of the rigid council planning policies which have irritated many in Haverhill.

First we had council officers going along with the public consultation on Carisbrooke’s masterplan for Haverhill Research Park at Hanchet End. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will approve whatever comes forward, but it does mean the council will consider it, even though there is a good percentage of housing being included.

That in turn does not mean any lessening of the firm determination that growth in Haverhill in future should be in the north-east and not on any other land, especially not on land zoned for business use. But there is a public consultation on a new Haverhill masterplan coming up, so watch this space.

And that brings us on to the second indication of a slight thaw in the planning freeze. This is only a tiny one and it might mean very little – nevertheless it is there, like the first snowdrop buds outside my window.

The Labour group on Haverhill Town Council – and, frankly, in recent years, you cannot get much more powerless than that – has changed its view about the former Project site.

This Labour group is a smallish minority on a body which has no planning powers other than to comment. But, apart from the maverick Tory borough councillor from Thurlow, Robert Clifton-Brown, this is the first sign that any councillor of any colour was even prepared to consider the distant possibility that gaining over 200 jobs might be nearly as important to the town as protecting a couple of shopkeepers.

If you remember, there was a proposal to build a series of start-up business units on the former Project site in Ehringshausen Way, along with a builders’ merchants (Wickes), a drive-thru restaurant (McDonalds) and four shops selling ‘bulky goods’, and call it Hamlet Green.

The town council unanimously objected on grounds that the shops might damage High Street trade, and St Edmundsbury Borough Council – which is the planning authority with the actual power to say yes or no – came to a similar conclusion in line with its policy of only allowing business use on the site, re-inforced by objections from Anglian Water that it was too near the sewage treatment works and might cause them a problem of people complaining about their stinks. Only Cllr Clifton-Brown thought the promise of jobs was more beneficial to Haverhill.

The common denominator in both these proposals is something known as ‘higher value’. That is a complicated concept, but basically it’s a sort of quid pro quo for developers to take on sites where there is quite a bit of risk involved.

There is a lot of cheap land available for business or industrial development in Haverhill – acres of places which the borough council has allocated for this to take place.
In good times, you might expect people to take it up and provide much-needed jobs. But these are not good times, and at the moment there is virtually no chance of that ever happening.

If companies are not particularly interested in locating here, then developers sometimes build the facilities themselves in the hope of enticing them, but even that is unlikely to happen because of the risk in the current economic climate. Rents in Haverhill are much lower than elsewhere, so the return is a lot less anyway.

The only way a developer can hope to square this circle is to include other uses on the site which command a better return – commercial and leisure, such as hotels, restaurants or shops, or residential, either standard or executive housing, possibly being forced to include some social housing as well. These uses are called higher value.

So far, the council has been staunchly opposed to allowing any of this on sites earmarked solely for business uses, perhaps influenced by developers in the past who have used it as a way of making bigger bucks by building acres of housing with no community facilities.

But if it doesn’t adapt to new economic realities, there is a real chance the town could stagnate. Retailers and operators will not take any old site. The council can’t force Wickes, for instance, to agree to locate their builders’ merchants on the Gurteen site. They just won’t do it, as the council found out with Cineworld, who were only prepared to accept the site of their choosing.

And while they play this little game of poker, chances could be lost. St Edmundsbury Council  is fond of telling us over and over again that it has spent over £20million in Haverhill in recent years, which is aimed at kick-starting real improvements from the private sector.

HPG’s plans for the former Project site were estimated at £12.5million, Carisbrooke’s proposed investment at Hanchet End is £8million. Add them up and you discover that in the past year the council has put big barriers in the way of an equivalent investment from reliable examples of the private sector, just because it wasn’t exactly where they wanted it.

Let’s hope their view is also changing, or we could soon be into negative equity.

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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