Home Page Brainstorming session at least teased out an idea or two 13/09/13

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

If you were in Haverhill town centre on Wednesday morning you probably saw groups of mostly well-dressed people strolling about as if they were on some sort of heritage tour.

 

In fact, they were carrying out a Ďwalking audití of the streets as part of the brainstorming session organised by Suffolk County Council to try to make progress on the vexed question - to pedestrianise or not to pedestrianise, among other things.

 

I have not been among Suffolk County Councilís greatest fans in the last few years, and I suspect I am not alone in Haverhill in that. However, it has to be said they did make quite an effort on this occasion.

 

There are several good things about what happened on Wednesday. To begin with, it was run by independent consultants. Of course, that costs a lot of money, and some people will just see that as being trousered by blaggers, but there is a serious reason for it.

 

If you have a public meeting, or a workshop, run by the county council, it quickly turns into a series of complaints and accusations from the floor to which officers and councillors have to spend all their energy preparing replies, with the result that they donít actually listen to anything.

 

But with someone independent running it, the county council becomes just another participant, able to listen to everything that is said without the need to defend or respond.

 

Another good point was that it went on all day. Evening meetings are always unsatisfactory because they have to be drawn to a close just when everyone is getting to the nub of the argument.

 

It takes a while, and a lot of positioning of arguments, to actually distill what is important from what is just peripheral, personal, idealogical, anecdotal or dogmatic.

 

Wednesday began with people in very entrenched positions on either side of the argument. But eventually they have to step outside those positions, however temporarily, just to stop repeating themselves. That is when progress can happen.

 

Sadly, or luckily, depending on your point of view, there were no Russian diplomats present to come up with a left-field solution. But there were some radical new ideas on the table by the end of the day. They may be impractical and/or unaffordable, but at least they were there, and they will be reflected in the market square follow-up display.

 

That may get people thinking along new lines. Shared space in Ehringshausen Way? Decking out over Jubilee Walk car park, with parking underneath and shops on top? Southern service road?

 

Once you start thinking about these things, other issues suddenly take on new importance, particularly access ways. I have always thought these are a vital element in the whole jigsaw.

 

If, by some miracle, money was sourced to build a southern service road, there would need to be pedestrian access. The lack of a rear entrance to Iceland shows that.

 

If the decking idea was taken forward, the linkages to the high street would be the key. They ought to be taken in hand and improved even in the status quo, but apparently there is (surprise, surprise) a problem with ownerships.

 

So much of Haverhill High Street is in the hands of proprietors who know nothing of the town and are often based abroad. Tracking them down is hard enough, but even when councils do manage that, getting them to respond seems to be impossible. They just ignore all communication.

 

This is an area where the Government could make a real difference, because I am sure Haverhill is not the only town in Britain with this problem. Someone needs to buttonhole our MP and find out what Whitehall is doing to come up with a solution to something which blocks economic growth to such a degree.

 

I donít know what the answer is, but I am sure there are some top legal minds which could be brought to bear on it.

 

Of all the ideas I saw on Wednesday, this build-out is one of the more interesting. Itís not as if it hasnít partly been considered favourably before. There was a time when we heard McDonalds were looking at a drive-thru on what was then the Co-op car park.

 

An excavated underground car park idea has often been touted and even appeared on Local Plan maps. It was part of a search for ways to widening the town centre and getting away from the one-street scenario.

 

But in the new situation we have now it promises something just as useful, because building over the current car park would bring the area up to street level. Lifts could be provided and then we have level access for the disabled and could again consider including blue badge holders in a traffic ban.

 

I did a walking audit of my own on Wednesday morning and saw more than 20 parked cars in High Street, all but one displaying blue badges. Traffic was moving up and down continually.

 

The county council chiefs saw it too, and, I think, were surprised and a bit taken aback by the amount of it. Drivers use the blue badge holders as a smokescreen. As long as some cars are going down there, any cars can, without stigma.

 

The councilís new traffic supremo Cllr Graham Newman said at the end that we needed to get to the position where driving down the street was just Ďnot doneí any more. That will never happen while the disabled can do it.

 

If the slopes from the car park are a crunch issue, letís get rid of them. Letís make it so easy (and cheap, or even free) to park in car parks that pedestrianisation causes no one any inconvenience, and therefore no loss to retailers. That might keep everyone happy.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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