TALKING POINT

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Below: Hay Primary sch

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Left: stuart Pritchard, owner of Castle greengrocers Below: emily Penrose

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Elsie Button talks to the people of Hay about the planning proposal that has divided the town

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Castle street

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HEN I was little I vividly remember visiting the butchers, bakers, and wholefood shop in Hay with my mum. I loved the ritual of watching lentils being measured out on huge weighing scales, and choosing a warm crusty loaf from a shelf full of bread in all shapes and sizes. And I still recall listening to mum talking with the butcher about her success at hatching duck eggs (bought from him) under her broody hen. That was more than 30 years ago, but the town is still thriving. Castle Street (where many of these shops are situated) is among the top 20 best shopping streets in Britain, according to the Google Street View Awards. Hay is world-famous for its books and literary festival, attracting thousands of visitors every year. For many, one of the attractions is that it does not have a supermarket within its perimeters.
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However, a developer – Gaufron* of Llandrindod Wells – is in private talks with Powys County Council about placing a large retail store on the site of Hay Primary School. In return, it is offering a new school, care home, and a community centre. The council, which has no alternative option for financing the replacement of the ageing school buildings, has now put its decision on the plan on hold until after the May local elections and the proposal, which is the talk of the town, is simmering on.

As someone who was brought up just outside Hay, I have been following the controversial project with interest. The plans have been widely discussed in the media, and have caused a furore among traders, residents and visitors to Hay. I recently spent a day in the town to find out for myself what people thought. It was freezing cold, but the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the high street was positively buzzing. I began by speaking to Hay farmer Simon Dale, whose son is a pupil at Hay school. “I would definitely not use a new supermarket. I love shopping on this high street, visiting the shops selling local produce and interesting gifts, that you can’t buy elsewhere, and chatting to people as I go,” he said. “I much prefer the thought of the money I spend going to local people who I know, rather than to faceless shareholders.” I had no difficulties in finding residents, like Simon, who were happy
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to talk to me freely about their objections. By contrast, a Hay resident and mother of two (who wanted to remain anonymous) said: “I just don’t have the time to walk around Hay visiting loads of different shops. It’s also no good if you are on a budget and organic food is not at the top of your list.” If a supermarket was opened close by, she would definitely use it to save the long car journeys. Catriona and Joe Emmett recently moved to the area from Bristol, and told me that it was the “unique and arty feel of Hay” that attracted them. But while many see Hay as quirky and vibrant, others see it as a rural Welsh town with a struggling economy. Many schoolleavers head away from Hay as soon as they can because there are so few opportunities locally. My own experience bears this out. I, along with many of my friends, moved to London after I left college, though I returned with my husband to have children. Some people I spoke to admitted to sitting on the fence, saying they could see both sides of the argument, such as local mother Zoe Verry. She uses the local shops, and said a new supermarket would not change this. However, she would use a supermarket as well, instead of traveling to Brecon for much of her shopping. “I’ll always support the local shops. I can’t see that a supermarket would make any difference to Hay,” she said. Most local traders wouldn’t agree with Zoe. According to a chamber of commerce survey conducted in December 2011, 89% of businesses in Hay are worried about the development proposals. I visited various shops (three
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of whom offered me a cup of tea!) to hear first hand how they felt. “As a business, I’m horrified at the supermarket proposal and I would definitely lose business if it were to be built.” said Stuart Pritchard, owner of Castle Greengrocers. “Some of those in favour are branding Hay traders as opposed to the new school, which of course is not the case. We just think the council should have put aside money to pay for it.” Charlotte Allport, who owns the Sandwich Cellar with her mother Jane, agreed: “A new supermarket will affect the whole town in general, and if it has a café we will definitely be affected. We are very worried.” And Emily Penrose, owner of the Hay Baby boutique, feels a new supermarket will change the character of the town. “If we get a large supermarket, we will no longer feel different, we’ll lose our individuality, and then in turn lose our visitors.” What struck me during my jaunt round Hay is how an issue like this can really bring certain members of a community together, such as the traders, but at the same time create a real divide overall. So, would the quirkiness and vibrancy of Hay continue to shine through no matter what, or would the high street be destroyed? In response to the council’s stated lack of an alternative, a group called Plan B for Hay has been set up. Gareth Howell Jones, local resident, garden designer and a spokesman for the group said: “Plan B is a group of local people who have come together to try to ensure that Hay gets the new school it needs without a big new supermarket, which would damage the town’s businesses,

tourism, and the general quality of life. “We have already demonstrated that a new school could be built on the existing site, without significant disruption to the running of the current school.” The group has put forward two alternative plans to the council, following a series of public meetings in Hay School attracting more than 500 people. The population of Hay is just 1,400. Gareth Ratcliffe, county councillor for Hay, has had a very busy few weeks talking to everyone from angry residents and irate traders to county politicians. He said: “Most people I’ve spoken to want the same thing for Hay in the long term, there’s just a lot of different views about how we get there.” Partly due to Gareth’s efforts, the council has agreed to delay a decision about the project until after the local elections in May. In truth, no one knows exactly what effect a supermarket would have on the town. Experience elsewhere is inconclusive: while a supermarket in Llandrindod Wells has been blamed for the closure of a string of local shops, Ludlow appears to have retained a thriving independent retail sector despite the presence of a supermarket in the middle of the town. Whether or not a new supermarket arrives in Hay, the project has led to great debate about the community’s future. This can only be a good thing in these turbulent times. ■ ✦ Gaufron did not respond to requests for a comment on the proposals. ❒ You can read Elsie Button’s blog at www.herefordshire.greatbritishlife.co.uk
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Herefordshire & Wye Valley Life

Herefordshire & Wye Valley Life