Hart of the Matter
For a town which mostly seems not to register on national radar at all, Haverhill certainly gets examined enough by experts.
National television coverage of last week’s Tour of Britain cycle race stage from Bury St Edmunds to Colchester managed to ignore Haverhill altogether, as if that visionary ten seconds, when a small number of the world’s top road racers (the majority were toiling up the Spanish Pyrenees in La Vuelta) flew past with the evanescence of a kingfisher, had never happened.
It was a typical moment within the tradition of Haverhill’s relationship with fame – eternal optimism followed by perpetual disillusion.
But when it comes to surveys, analysis and reports, Haverhill must the capital of the east of England, if not of the UK. If all the data that has been accumulated about the town by business and community experts down the years were laid end to end you could build a railway to Cambridge on it.
The latest one is a survey of how people use the town centre. Hopefully it will also examine how they don’t use it, otherwise it won’t tell anyone anything much. I urge you all to fill one in, either on line or by picking up a form in the library or arts centre.
I particularly urge you to fill it in if you think Haverhill town centre is a complete toilet, because it is necessary for those who analyse this survey to know why some people take that view.
Curiously, the division between those who are positive about Haverhill and those who are critical of it was cast in a new light for me last week by our MP, Matthew Hancock.
I was interested to learn his view of the town, as someone who had not known a great deal about it before he took on the job of representing this area in Westminster, and he pointed out something which surprised me, but which, when I thought about it, should not have.
He has spoken to a large number of Haverhill residents over the past nine months, across the whole spectrum of the population, and he had found that, in general, younger people were very proud of, and positive about, their town. This was not always the case with older people.
For all the writing and thinking about the town that I have done over the past four decades, that fact had never occurred to me.
Now, that wasn’t a scientific survey and it wasn’t analysed by a statistical expert. It was just an impression from someone coming in from outside with fresh eyes and ears.
Is it possible that people who have lived in Haverhill a long time are carrying with them an old, and now unjustified, prejudice without realising it?
Are they so close to the town that they cannot see how it has improved? Have they lived with corporate local government failure for so long that that is all they can see?
Or maybe, despite all the developments in infrastructure and technology, their minds are still in an age which expects to have all services to hand, whereas younger people have a more mobile mindset and expect to travel – even want to travel – for what they need.
If so, the economic battle in Haverhill is going to be tough in the future. It is all very well campaigning for new facilities – and it is generally older people who campaign – but will they be used?
I know many young Haverhill people who have never set foot in our Cineworld cinema in the nearly two years it has been open. They still prefer to travel to Cambridge.
Consider the shopping expedition. It is true that the retail offer of Haverhill is limited by the fact that, for many goods, there is only one outlet to visit. This makes shopping boring (I find it boring anyway, but for a large percentage of the population it is now one of the most popular leisure activities).
Therefore, developers argue, the way to improve Haverhill and make it draw in more people, is to encourage retailers to come in who will provide an opportunity for ‘comparison shopping’.
This is the stultifying activity which I can remember my parents indulging in from time to time, particularly over the choice of wallpaper, when I was dragged around what seemed an endless series of shops from Sudbury to Cambridge top hang around listlessly, and often fractiously, while they pored over those huge pattern books which you no longer see.
However, this is now a top form of entertainment in relation to all sorts of white goods, furniture, carpets, even everyday supermarket shopping and, most of all, clothes – shopping around, as they call it.
It’s a trip out for the day - or weekend - and, sadly, even having two or three similar retailers competing desperately with each other within Haverhill’s small economy, is unlikely to compare with the delights of Bluewater, Oxford Street, Birmingham, Manchester or Gateshead – and, yes, people do travel that far.
But does that make Haverhill a poor local shopping centre? That is a very different question.