Home Page What a shambles! But apathy and cowardice have led us there 15/03/12

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

I suppose it was always too optimistic to imagine that the latest proposals to pedestrianise Haverhill town centre would come to anything.


Indeed, as soon as they were launched one could see it was not going to be easy. As I went into the room in the leisure centre where Suffolk County Council were displaying their glossy visuals, I had that feeling of passing Bette Davis at the foot of the stairs saying: "Hang on to your seats, fellers, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”


The trouble was that this was an attempt to force the idea through despite the objections, perhaps out of sheer frustration that none of the objectors were prepared to ‘compromise’ at all.


I have long ago lost count of the number of pedestrianisation proposals, discussions, meetings and reports which I have read, listened to and attended. Groundhog Day doesn’t come into it. It was already under discussion when I started work as a journalist in Haverhill 36 years ago.


However, I couldn’t help agreeing with Cllr Tim Marks (St Edmundsbury mayor-elect, congratulations Tim) when he said at yesterday’s meeting of Haverhill Area Working Party: "I am flabbergasted that at this late stage we are back to the drawing board and we don’t have a plan.”


It is quite, quite amazing that so many people can spend so much time, effort and public money going round and round in circles.


On the other hand, when you look at the situation more closely, you can begin to see how this has happened and the levels of civic apathy and cowardice which have led to it.


The apathy is on the part of the public and the cowardice is on the part of the big local government organisations. If the public were less apathetic in their failure to respond to consultation, we might have a clearer idea of whether people really want pedestrianisation or not.


So far, we have had an attempt to force through a scheme based on nothing more than anecdotal evidence that people want it, followed by it being scuppered by the results of a public consultation in which 108 people out of a population of 23,000 bothered to take part.


That, for a start, is no way to make such a fundamental decision in the history of a community.


But, on the other side, we have had councils, first St Edmundsbury Borough and now Suffolk County who have shown over and over again they just don’t have the guts to try to sort the situation out.


Neither has been prepared to take a logical view, unfettered by fears over cost or unpopularity. Probably, the first move ought to be a real attempt to find out what residents and shoppers think – one that gets at least a ten per cent response, say two or three thousand replies. Even a referendum wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Having identified that, we then need to work out how to achieve the favoured option. If it is not pedestrianisation, then a form of shared space that makes people feel safer than they do at the moment is required, followed up by warden enforcement.


I have a feeling the latest proposals – which are going ahead despite there being no traffic ban – will make pedestrians feel less safe, and probably lead to something as lack-lustre and disappointing as one now sees in Queen Street.


If the answer is in favour of pedestrianisation, then we have to work out how it can be done in such a way that traders and disabled groups will agree to it. Everyone talks about compromise, but the current scheme showed no compromise from its proponents.


One of the main reasons it keeps failing is that the local authorities continually fail to talk effectively to businesses. They seem to assume businesses are just being awkward for the sake of their pockets. Every problem the traders throw up is seen as some sort of smokescreen to their own self-interest.


It was clear from yesterday’s meeting that councillors did not have any real understanding of the day-to-day workings of these businesses. That may be a reason why they got to this late stage before it blew up in their faces.


But a more likely reason is that local authorities know exactly what is really required and are not prepared to do it because it would cost more than they are prepared to pay.


If this had been Bury St Edmunds it would have been done long ago. If this had been Ipswich it would be being done now. A proper rear servicing road on the south side of the street, with the odd customer parking space for shops that can show a real need, shopmobility at both ends of the town and properly integrated disabled parking. That just might do the trick.


It wouldn’t be perfect for everyone, because shoppers would no longer be able to park right outside shops – but in which towns can you do that? Traders might lose out a little because of that, but that is real compromise.


And the councils, perhaps with the help of central government, can then turn their attention to getting on the backs of those sharky landlords.... But that’s another story.

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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