Report on a public meeting held on Wed 24th January in St Mary’s Church to discuss development issues in Halesworth relating to the new Planning Document for Waveney


The meeting was organised by county councillor Wendy Mawer and the East Anglian Daily Press. The District Council was represented on the platform by councillor Mark Bee, leader, and a selection of officers. John Gummer, the Suffolk Coastal MP managed the meeting in an informal manner.
St Mary’s church was filled to capacity, and the meeting lasted for about two hours. The audience decided the subject matter and the meeting proceeded on the basis of issues raised from the audience, which were addressed factually by councillors, officers and John Gummer.

Education


The meeting opened with questions about the fate of Suffolk’s 40 Middle Schools, of which Halesworth is one. The meeting was told that the county’s three-tier system, where a Middle School caters for children age 9-13, did not originate because it was seen to offer academic advantages, but in order to fit the facilities then available. The county council’s deliberations on this subject are taking place against national league tables, which place Suffolk’s schools below the national average at all levels. If it happened, the change would be part of a national trend, where the 2-tier system has been adopted by 95% of English authorities. The firm view of the platform was that where standards of Suffolk schools fall below the national average, this can be largely attributed to the disruption of children’s academic development by the two age-breaks of the 3-tier system.

Before any change was adopted, views of communities would be taken into account, and every effort would be made to avoid transitions that involved the use of temporary buildings. The County Council would dispose of any land surplus to requirements, such as playing fields, and every effort made to use the proceeds to support the education service. The review will begin in 2009 and will take 12-15 months.

Three views of the County Council relevant to this subject are:-

“Suffolk middle schools take a special pride in their high standards of pastoral care. Both educationally and socially pupils benefit from the unique opportunities provided by middle schools. Middle schools have been acknowledged as presenting one of the most enriching and formative learning environments in which it is possible to learn”. (SCC web site)

“Authorities which have recently changed significant numbers of schools from 3 to 2 tier appear to be making improvements more quickly than Suffolk at key stage 3 and at GCSE level”. (Recent official SCC statement; EADT, 23 Jan 07).

There is not a single subject where three tier schools exceed the performance of two tier schools at GCSE. (Councillor Patricia O’Brien, chair of the county council’s policy development panel. EADT, 23 Jan 07)

There seems to be a widespread view among parents and some teachers that the 3-tier system offers a more caring and nurturing environment.

The session on this subject raised issues about avoiding the use of temporary accommodation should the move to a 2-tier system be adopted. The status of the Halesworth Technical Centre was discussed and did not seem to raise any serious issues..

Health


The next subject was the future of the Patrick Stead Community Hospital. Many people were concerned that the hospital would not reopen after its current refurbishment. The crucial date of 1st April 2007 was raised, when the in -patient beds were due to be made available again. There were assurances that the hospital’s long-term future was secure- the 12 existing beds would be available on 1st April, with the possible addition of another 7 in-patient beds. Meanwhile all other departments of the hospital were open and the significance of the date of 1st April was that this was when funds would become available to support the beds because it was the start of the next financial year.

There followed a detailed discussion of the position of the Patrick Stead Hospital in relation to present Government policy of funding the National Health Service and the role of the Strategic Health Authority in directing Government funds to Primary Care Trusts. The story was told of how the recent link with Yarmouth had placed an unreasonable debt upon the Patrick Stead.

People were encouraged to join the local Patrick Stead Support Group as a grass roots link between the Primary Care Trust and the community.

From the floor came a passionate plea for maintaining an effective and comprehensive community hospital in an area with many of the serious socio-medical care problems of extreme rurality. In this connection, a paper available at the meeting, entitled ‘Business Support of Community Services for the former Waveney PCT’, authored by Simon Jones, (15th Dec. 2006), dealt with a comparative analysis of hospital sites at Beccles, Aldeburgh and Halesworth. His conclusion was:-

“Patrick Stead Hospital is potentially the least attractive site however it has the most development potential to provide modern healthcare services to Halesworth and other PCT residents in concert with nearby GP Practice. This locality is regarded by the ambulance service as having the greatest rurality and difficulty of access to hospital services in England”.

Facilities for youth


Although the audience appeared to consist mainly of the middle-aged and elderly there were important contributions from young people. Important concerns of people out of school were the need of a ‘chill out space’ that they could run for themselves, and strong feelings that such a facility should be close to the town centre. The district council had ‘something up its sleeve’, but could not talk about it because of various sensitivities of current negotiations. From the floor, the efforts of local youth to participate in community activities was stressed, particularly their efforts to develop the skateboard park and mount the exhibition for ‘New Vision’. The discussion was against a background of a likely deterioration of the town’s youth culture should nothing be provided for it to integrate with Halesworth's vision for the future.

Building development


The background to the council’s official papers on future planning for housing needs was presented as follows:

1 The Regional Planning Council decides on the number of new houses needed and passes these figures down to the local authority (currently the proposed plan envisages an increase, over the next 15 years, of half a million new homes equivalent to nine new towns the size of Ipswich being built across six counties). The planned numbers are to meet the need to house key workers and young couples who cannot afford a place of their own, the anticipated population increase, and the rise in single parent families.

2 Waveney’s government target is around 400 per year up to 2021 of which Halesworth’s contribution would be about 150 i.e. approximately 15 new builds per year. In this total about 30% would be in the ‘affordable’ category.

3 This is the context of the council’s planning map, which does not represent houses that will be built but simply the planning applications that have come in from developers.

There were concerns from the floor about the influx of problem families, spiralling house prices and second-homes.

4 Regarding environmental impact it was stated that all new houses should meet national sustainability standards of energy use. Regarding environmental impact, the meeting was assured that if, for example, the Environment Agency objected to any development, ‘it would not happen’.

The issue of a new community hall was raised in relation to Halesworth’s catchment of 6-7000 people. In passing it was pointed out that the Rifle Hall, which holds 400 people, used for previous town meetings, was subject to a covenant, which means that if the property is sold by the trustees, the proceeds have to be used for a similar purpose. It was pointed out that ‘sustainabilty’ was the catchword in that any plans for a new community hall would have to have a strategy to maintain the facility (the Rifle Hall is in its present dilapidated state because no funds have been available for maintenance for the past decade).

Sports facilities


By a show of hands it was apparent that everyone agreed that Halesworth and Blyth Valley needs better sports facilities. The council’s view is that, as for a community hall scheme, there has be a plan from grass roots that involves establishing a self-financing trust. Such a sports trust could obtain support from agencies that are not open to the council. In discussing the council’s contribution it was stated that as far as the swimming pool is concerned it currrently costs Waveney district £12 per admission.

Retail trade


This subject centred on the plan for a second supermarket. This was discussed in relation to research showing that if another supermarket was built it was very probable that the town’s numerous and richly varied assembly of shops would melt away. The other strong message to everybody was, them or loose them!


Services and infrastructure

It was generally agreed that the key to Halesworth’s future business economy is improvement of the A12 with bypasses and a complete duel carriageway from Ipswich. It is well established as to what has to be done technically, but the mechanisms of funding are obscure, particularly as the A12 had been de-trunked and is now the responsibility of the County Council. It was anticipated that any improved crossing of the Blyth estuary would entail massive opposition on environmental grounds.

Young people are frustrated by the lack of public transport that fits in with their wishes to broaden their horizons by opting for higher education away from Halesworth. A young resident spoke about the frustration of taking up a place in Ipswich and then having to face hours of travel because of the infrequent train timetable, and the lack of a bus service. Also, the fares on rail and bus are unaffordable. The only positive development on the horizon is the removal of the single-track loop at Beccles that should result in more frequent rail services within the county.

This local discussion is taking place against a report produced by the East of England Regional Assembly whose officers assert:

“The impact of the development now proposed in the East of England and the lack of planned improvements to the transport infrastructure are likely to result in unacceptable conditions on the road and rail network towards the end of the Plan period, seriously hindering the movement of people and goods and holding back the economic development of the region”

Other topics raised were the cost of car parking and inadequate road maintenance

Devolution of decision-making


Examples of frustration over the funding of small projects to improve the environment of the town for trade and amenity were highlighted. There is a block in decision making between the townsfolk, wanting for example, a few power points in the Market Place to expand the local produce market, and action by the council’s funding departments in Lowestoft. It was firmly stated that the council’s policy was,

wherever possible, to devolve funding packages and decision making on the uses of these funds to local people. The future policy is that small but important projects will be decided and funded locally.

Subjects not raised


Law and order; IT provision and training; the green environment; waste disposal and recycling; tourism; the arts; lifelong learning..