The origins of The Bury Society in 1971

A lot of emotional heat was generated in 1971 by the proposed £3 million St. John’s Street area redevelopment scheme in Bury St. Edmunds.  The street was to be demolished and a new shopping centre built in its place. The “Save St. John’s Street” campaigners were the original group that became the Bury St Edmunds Society.

Back in 1964, Bury Town Council had first discussed the idea of a central area redevelopment.  The Minister of Housing approved the St John’s Street area for comprehensive changes in 1968, after a public enquiry in the previous year. Consultant Architect Sir Frederick Gibberd was involved along with another London consultant Hillier Parker. Council Treasurer, L.G. Lockey, thought the scheme was financially viable and bids should be invited.

The plan was to re-develop six and a half acres with 55 new shops, two big supermarkets, a pub, offices, new roads and a bus station. The area was seen as a pedestrian extension of the Cornhill and a logical way to expand the town’s shopping centre.

Lady Kate Playfair led a campaign to stop the re-development of St. John’s Street and got into several confrontations with the then Town Clerk, Mr. R. Hiles. Lady Playfair had been refused permission to have a large banner across St. John’s Street and posters in the library.  The mayor at the time, Ald. Arthur Shearing, gave some support to her group.

A meeting was arranged at Bury Corn Exchange on a Tuesday in June 1971 to galvanise public support and she told a reporter that support for her cause was surprising – 600 attended! They raised awareness of local people and questioned many of the new proposals put forward. One objection was that existing traders would not be able to afford rents in the new shops.

A key argument was how this development would change the character of the town. Brig. H. E. Collett-White of Sicklesmere, a member of the campaign committee to stop re-development of St. John’s Street, hit out at the “rectangle” conception of Bury’s future: “they say Bury was designed in rectangles and must be bull dozed into more rectangles. Fancy coming out of the Nutshell or Cupola House, Everard’s, or the Griffin and seeing nothing but rectangles,” he complained. He suggested that

“if supermarkets are necessary in the future they could be put on the fringes of the town where the population is living. But leave St John’s Street to posterity and humanity”.

Sir Eldon Griffiths M.P. met members of the Suffolk Preservation Society in Bury St Edmunds to discuss establishing a conservation area after the recent work by Norman Scarfe as editor of a new town centre study.

At the start of September, Barbara Rampling and others organised a meeting in the Athenaeum to launch the idea of an ‘amenity protection society’.  The “Save St. John’s Street” campaigners had adopted the name of The Bury St Edmunds Society by their inaugural meeting on Friday October 1, 1971. David Dymond was elected their chairman. He said, “We are fully aware that a certain amount of redevelopment must take place in the town centre but feel most strongly that St John’s Street is an essential feature of Bury and must be preserved”. The issue was not about authority versus protest but how local people wanted to have more say in what the Council did.

The Bury Society won their fight to stop Bury St. Edmunds town council going ahead with the central area redevelopment scheme. The town council decided to scrap the scheme by 16 votes to eight at a special meeting on November 22, 1971. As councillors went into the meeting, they were met by a group of opponents to the scheme led by Lady Kate Playfair.

Town clerk, Mr. Rex Hiles told a packed public gallery that £14,000 had been spent on consultants’ fees for the scheme and West Suffolk County council had also spent several thousand pounds.  He said 33 development companies had asked to be considered for the scheme and a shortlist of 9 had been approved.

Town planning committee chairman Mr. Harry Marsh, who sent in the petition calling for the scheme to be dropped, said it had never been the wish of the townsfolk. He said a petition signed by 3,000 people objecting to the scheme had been sent to the department of the Environment.

The Bury Society began in a time of great change and with the support of the local people.  The local council, after some initial doubts, began to see the Bury Society as a conduit for the views of ratepayers and a way to avoid this kind of emotional protest happening again. Now, 50 years later, it seems appropriate to look back at how it all started.


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