Home Page Was it fear or apathy which prevented debate on the Project site scheme? 22/10/10

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

On the street and on the message boards of this site, yesterday’s decision by the council to refuse permission for development of the former Project site for shops and business units seems to have been an extremely unpopular one.

Poor old Haverhill Town Council has come in for some of the blame from those who do not realise this was a decision by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, and the town council would not have swayed matters either way by its opinion – albeit it did object to the scheme anyway.

Personally, I would have supported the plan, but I can see there are also some strong arguments against it. They are the arguments of fear but, nevertheless, there is no guarantee they would not have been proved right.

The scheme might have damaged the town centre’s trade. It might have failed to attract retailers and degenerated into empty properties or more pizza parlours. It might have been a disaster. Almost anything you do might be a disaster in the current financial climate. But it might not.

There was also a strong case that it might have been another significant step on the road to improving the town’s retail offer and therefore its general economy. The only thing that we can be sure of is that no change will mean no improvement – stagnation, at best.

Maybe the council knows more than we do, and is manoeuvring HPG towards the Duddery Hill allotments which we heard so much about. I doubt it.

We heard also that the Gurteen site is no good to the retailers involved, and we know from what the council itself has told us in defence of the location of Cineworld that these big companies know where they are prepared to go and where they are not prepared to go and that’s all there is to say about it. It looks like we can wave goodbye to Wickes, McDonalds, etc, at least for the time being.

But the pros and cons of the scheme could be argued about ad infinitum.  And that was the most depressing thing about yesterday morning – there was no debate.

I cannot believe that there are not two views among councillors – well, we know there are because some Haverhill ones not on the planning committee supported it.

But this was never going to be a Haverhill decision. The committee is packed with councillors from Bury and beyond, many of whom could not even be bothered to travel to Haverhill to take part in such a vital decision for the town.

Those that did hardly took part anyway. Either they were afraid to speak or they agreed with the recommendation of the officers to refuse. That may have been because they opposed the plan, or it may have been because they are afraid to go against their officers.

The fear of an appeal and how much it would cost is always uppermost in their minds, especially after a bad experience they have had. And here it was not the fear of HPG appealing against refusal, but the fear of Anglian Water appealing against approval.

Anglian Water’s role was just despicable. Even councillors opposed to the development could not see any justification for this 400m cordon sanitaire around the sewage works. Even the council’s own environmental health officers don’t agree with it.

The water company is just blighting land – not only here, but throughout the east of England - in order to save itself any further expenditure on odour control.

But even so, the meeting was a perfect justification of all those cynics who say it is pointless protesting against council policies. Sadly, that view is probably the reason why no members of the public bothered to speak up to support the scheme. If they had, perhaps there would have been some sort of exchange of views.

As it was, the only dissenting voice was Cllr Robert Clifton-Brown from Little Bradley, who is always prepared to be a maverick.

Of the Haverhill councillors, Cllr Anne Gower made her opposition clear and said why, which is perfectly reasonable; Cllr Tim Marks asked a couple of questions and had a dig at Anglian Water; Cllr Dorothy Whittaker said nothing. All three voted for refusal. The rest of the committee were largely silent.

For the members of the public who came along to see democracy in action it was indeed a sad 40 minutes.

I don’t think anyone would have complained if there had been a two-hour debate with the arguments being fully aired and then the vote had gone for refusal. But the morgue-like silence which greeted the completion of the presentations spoke volumes about either apathy or fear on the part of councillors.

Some dare not oppose the officers and I doubt if many from beyond the Haverhill area even bothered to read the dauntingly-thick report in front of them.

If I were  a Haverhill councillor and this had been a Bury application, I would have read it, if for no other reason than that it is part of an interesting, ongoing and wider debate about shopping trends, about town planning, about the local economy and about how we decide these sorts of private sector issues in this new financial climate for which old council policies may no longer be appropriate.

Then I would have waited to see if my view was swayed by the debate. With this committee, I guess I’d still be waiting for one to start.

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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