Home Page Community centres won't be viable without a community 05/12/11

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

There are going to be a lot of houses built in Haverhill – maybe delayed a little by the economic climate, but inevitable eventually – and over the next few years we shall see more detailed plans for chunks of north-west Haverhill, the ‘research park’ residential area beyond Hanchet End and, sooner or later, north-east Haverhill.


It will be interesting to compare those proposals, when they materialise, with those which prepared the way for Haverhill’s first and second phases of expansion – the council developments of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the private developments of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s.


There will be differences of density, of access (particularly with regard to car parking) and of design, but probably the biggest difference which anyone will be able to see with the most cursory glance at the sets of plans, will be the absence in recent times of a big blob in the middle labelled ‘community facilities’.


These were a fundamental feature of the Clements, Chalkstone and Parkway estates. Indeed, in the 1970s and 80s one of the biggest gripes on the Parkway was that a proper community centre had never been built and they had to make do with a long wooden shed of famous memory.


The 1990s saw a very different angle on the same issue. As the far west of Haverhill was developed, the site for community facilities at Hanchet End remained derelict and the little shop on the Chimswell estate failed. The opening of the new out-of-town Sainsburys in 1991 may have had something to do with this, but it was also a symptom of a wider change in behaviour patterns.


Only in recent years have the Hanchet End facilities finally been built, in partnership with an old people’s home, and producing a couple of takeaways. There is no designated community centre.


The next generation of plans, I suggest, will earmark no such facilities at all, because we have learned the lesson of how difficult they are to achieve.


Meanwhile, back on the Clements and Chalkstone estates, a few little shops and a pub struggle on and now the spotlight has fallen on the two community centres on which the tide seems to be going out.


St Edmundsbury Borough Council wants to offload them. This is nothing new. Community buildings have been loss-making for councils for years. Haverhill Town Hall was costing ratepayers a huge amount before it was converted into Haverhill Arts Centre, and contributing very little to the community. Critics of the building often forget that. At least we now get something for our money, whether you happen to want to use it or not.


And now the cost of the Leiston and Chalkstone centres leaps out as an easy saving for the borough to make. Haverhill Town Council is looking into whether it can take them on and continue to run them.


Money is not the only problem – in fact, probably not the main problem. The biggest shortfall is in a different sort of resource – people. Community centres need to be run by people from within the community, and the ones who are doing it now have mostly been doing it for a long time and are getting older.


Where are the young people coming forward to take on this work? To be secretary, treasurer, chairman, or to serve on the committee?


For a couple of hundred years, much of the day-to-day organisation of facilities in our towns and villages has been carried out by committees. Maybe there was a time when these were made up of the great and the good, who served either the public or themselves, depending on their integrity (or on what you believe of their integrity).


But show me the young person who is prepared, let alone keen or eager, to serve on a committee now. They are few and far between.


And the rot goes even deeper than that. For community centres to survive and continue to be viable, they need to have regular users. The odd craft fair, jumble sale, wedding etc is all very well, but it is nowhere near enough, and it isn’t predictable.


What you need are clubs and activities which meet on a regular basis, whether once a week or, preferably, even more often. And how are clubs and activities organised? By committees. And who serves on these committees? A lot of ageing people.


So, before the town council spends any more of our money on shoring up collapsing local facilities, members should also look at the cost of shoring up the users of those facilities. There has been a worthy suggestion of employing some person or persons who can fulfil these functions for the centres, and for the clubs – a sort of peripatetic treasurer or secretary.


That is all very well but, rather like children, if you do everything for them they will never learn to do anything. So this should involve an element of training people up from within the organisations concerned, so they can take over.


Even then, we are still left with the question of where the young people are whom we would want to be trained. If they were there, presumably the incumbents could do that themselves. So perhaps recruitment is the answer. Roll up, roll up and join a committee! Can you see that producing results?

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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