The challenge to save Newhaven town centre

Norman Baker
Norman Baker

For a relatively small town, there’s a lot going in Newhaven at the moment, some good, some bad.

The good news, of course, includes the new UTC which will be a major regional facility, specialising in marine engineering, and will bring many new people to the town each day. That itself reinforces the success in winning the contract for the assembly and maintenance of the wind farm soon to appear in the Channel. Then thrive is the money for the new Port Access Road, and for improved flood defences, and much more besides. This combination is the best outlook that Newhaven has had for decades, for jobs, for education, and for the environment.

But I want in this column to reflect on the most visible and most intractable problem, namely the state of the town centre.

It is sad to look at old pictures from years ago when the town centre was a vibrant place, full of proper shops where you could, it seems, buy just about almost anything. Then came the ring road, the greatest tragedy ever to befall the town. What on earth were the planners at East Sussex County Council thinking of? I’ll tell you - the car. And the consequence was the destruction of some lovely buildings and a noose placed round the neck of the centre, a noose that has been slowly tightening ever since. Plans have come and gone. We have even had a town centre manager - David Kerr. Anyone remember him? And still the shops close.

A drastic situation calls for drastic action. In terms of the road system, I have called for North Way to be two-way, and to carry all the through traffic, and for South Way to be turned into a local road, thus helping link the town centre again with the streets to the south. I also think there is a case for allowing some more traffic, especially buses and taxis into the eastern end of the pedestrian area.

To achieve this, however, will depend on action from East Sussex County Council, the body that imposed the ring road in the first place, and whose main gift to Newhaven recently has been the towering incinerator. Sadly they can’t even manage to maintain the roads they’ve got. Has anyone seen the appalling state of Valley Road recently? Or the road round the Avis Way industrial estate? Nevertheless, I am pressing them for action.

But even if these measures are enacted, that will not be enough to save the town centre which if it were an engine would be close to stalling. Part of the trouble is that there is no one landowner to do business with. On the contrary, there is a plethora of ownership, with some plots held, last time I checked, by property companies based overseas whose holdings are so great they probably don’t even realise they own a plot here or there in Newhaven and wouldn’t regard it as worth their while to do anything about it even if they did. And it is clear to me that both the rents and business rates are too high given the level of trade.

It seems to me that if nothing is done, the town centre will finally die off and we will see shops turned into housing. As it is, much of the retail trade is now elsewhere, at Sainsbury’s or at McDonald’s or thereabouts.

One drastic solution, which looked like it might actually happen a while back, is for the construction of a large office block which, if occupancy could be guaranteed and that is a big if, would provide sufficient lunchtime trade to support a good range of shops, just as Lewes does. That however doesn’t look likely and would be controversial in any case.

The only other solution, in my view, is for Lewes District Council, as the local planning authority, to compulsory purchase the town centre and almost start again. That would not be simple, nor quick, but it does represent the best chance for a revitalised town centre.

I should be pleased to hear the views of my constituents on what they feel might be done to rescue the town centre.