Hart of the Matter
As St Edmundsbury Borough Council comes to terms with the
fact that decision-making is not quite so easy when your majority is small, it
wouldn’t be a bad time for all borough councillors to take stock of what they
and their predecessors have achieved over the last 41 years since the council
They would find much there to encourage them in their
deliberations, but one might hope they would find much there to teach them
about mistakes they should not make twice.
I stood in the middle of the old cattle market car park in
Bury the other day, returning from a quick shopping trip. I don’t rate the town
very highly in comparison with Cambridge or Braintree for shopping, but
sometimes it can be convenient if you happen to be over that way anyway.
I scanned the 360 degrees of the built townscape around and
wondered if planners have any vision in their heads of what they are trying to
achieve before they agree schemes. The four different panoramas might have been
four completely different towns.
On one side of this huge square open area there is the old
town, looking across Risbygate. Facing it are the pleasant, more modern but
mainly well-designed buildings along Kings Road. Looking out of town you see
the functional but not offensive development around the cinema and eateries –
fairly typical of any town nowadays.
Facing that is the curious conglomeration which is known as
the Arc and which appears to combine the set of the original Star Trek with
Ceausescu’s Rumania but, whatever you think of it (and some people like it) is
conveniently and tidily engineered with wide pedestrian boulevards, simple
crossings and neat alleyways leading into the town centre.
At my feet was the car park itself, again cleanly engineered
and leading through to the cheaper, more established and attractive one on the
other side of the Parkway where I have always parked.
I thought back to the old days of the cattle market and
fondly-remembered sessions in the now demolished Wellington pub, called to mind
what it used to look like and decided that the replacement expresses, if not
particularly great taste, a greater affluence and solidity to the town’s
It is, if you like, an economic statement to visitors and,
as such, it is a successful one. "This must have cost a bit,” the first-time
visitor might murmur to himself as he gets out of his car and puts his money in
the pay and display machine.
So then I thought back to when I first worked in Haverhill
40 years ago, arriving in the car park behind Boots - which, like all Haverhill
car parking in those days, was free - and walked through one of the alleyways
into the high street.
And I tried to see exactly what St Edmundsbury has achieved
there over the same period of time. In fact, the area has hardly changed. There
has been the creation of Brook Service Road which, in engineering and design
terms lives up to the vibrant imagination of its name. The main car park, which
was not fully surfaced back then, has been given a cosmetic upgrade.
Jubilee Walk was created, destroying in its birth quite a
nice part of the old high street, but, hey, that happens. It was quite grand in
the 1970s when Sainsbury’s invested in its brand new supermarket facing the car
By the late 1970s this was quite a reasonable approach to
the town, showing what St Edmundsbury had achieved in partnership with both
Sainsbury’s and Glasswells.
Since then, alas, it has been a tale of steady decline and
failure of care. One little refurb gave us the circular seats and the bronze
cat, but that’s it.
Now it is an economic statement at least as effective as the
cattle market area of Bury but in the opposite direction.
"There’s not much money about here,” the first-time visitor might
immediately say to himself as he gets out of his car and walks over to the pay
and display machine.
That judgement, of course, does not reflect the real
economy, but to a much greater degree it reflects the local authorities. Our
first-time visitor, not knowing how local councils are structured, would assume
Haverhill and Bury were under two completely different ones.
Not that this dichotomy has gone unnoticed. Even St
Edmundsbury’s most parochial councillors must now be aware of it, and if they
weren’t, the draft town centre masterplan document draws attention to it.
They would say the issue is being addressed by this very
masterplan process. But the trouble is this is not the first opportunity to do
something about it. We had a town centre masterplan ten years ago which addressed
the issue quite imaginatively. But nothing happened.
And it’s no good blaming the local retail or property markets.
There has been investment in Haverhill during that time. There have been
multiples arriving in town. There has been an enormous amount of public
The roadblocks are not just economic. Okay, Haverhill is, as
yet, too small to attract many of the retailers we would want and who might,
through partnership, help fund all the public realm improvements which are
But much of what is required is not hugely expensive. It is
to do with enabling and with engaging property-owners with a new vision –
persuading them of the benefits to themselves of getting involved with that
If any of that has been going on behind the scenes, there is
very little evidence of it having had any effect. The borough council could
lead the way with serious investment and not just the populist and easy stuff
it keeps bragging about having done five years ago. It could show visitors and
potential investors that it, at least, has the confidence in Haverhill’s future
it keeps talking about so much.
Maybe it will this time. Maybe the new political landscape
will help. But don’t hold your breath.