Home Page Forward-looking or a backwater? Maybe it depends on your age 04/02/11

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Hart of the Matter

On Tuesday those of us who attended the first consultation event about the next Haverhill Masterplan had the chance to stick post-it labels with our ideas for the town’s future onto blank spaces under various headings.


It was quite fun for a while, but eventually it became apparent that almost all the ideas needed one or both of two things – cash and commitment.


One of the themes of the morning, introduced by St Edmundsbury Borough Council from the beginning, was that the former was going to be in short supply from now on, at least from the public sector.


We were now expected by the Government, we were told, to seek ‘alternative methods of delivery’ for the services we require – and that’s the ones we have already, let alone any new ones we might have had the temerity to suggest on a post-it.


So that leaves us with commitment, and I suppose the ensuing years will show how much of that there is in Haverhill.


Later on that morning we were asked to encapsulate in one sentence what we would like Haverhill to be like in 20 years’ time.


A student from Castle Manor had quite a neat idea. It should be a town, she said, that people who go away should be proud to come back to.


In some ways that is an extension of the college’s now well-recognised motto: "What have you done today to make you feel proud?” And if, in 20 years, young people who left the town to seek a career among the bright lights were able to say that returning to Haverhill achieved that aspiration we would have travelled far indeed.


In the end, it is an aspiration any sensible person should entertain for the town where they grew up, even in this age of mobility. One might hope the country had already escaped the post-war scenario of youngsters having to escape their grimy working-class backgrounds in order to achieve anything. That is, as I believe Victoria Wood wrote, like a film with Albert Finney.


But what, exactly, would make people feel proud of Haverhill? That is the $64,000 question. After all, some already do, while others, you feel when you speak to them, never would even if it became the capital of the universe.


The vision is all very well, but the practicalities always seem to get in the way. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to separate out some of the strands which would actually make a difference in Haverhill from the vast number of issues which will feed into this Masterplan.


There are many things which we in Haverhill should be proud of now – the friendly community, the low crime rate, the entrepreneurial spirit, the manufacturing base, the recent achievements of the two senior schools, a general can-do attitude and the sense of being ‘on the up’, however slowly. These are things which outsiders recognise even if we don’t.


There are also many things which are real, chronic and ongoing stumbling-blocks to the engendering of civic pride – poor infrastructure, lack of retail and leisure facilities, dismally boring mid-20th century architecture, distant centres of local government power and a general sense that the town is a backwater.


Here we encounter the first of many conundrums about Haverhill. Most people from the establishment – MPs, councillors, council officers, business leaders, etc – speaking about the town, describe it as modern, forward-looking, full of opportunity and with more potential than any other similar town in East Anglia.


If you talk to young people who, as we were continually being told on Tuesday, will be in the prime in 2031, you hear a different message. Many can’t wait to leave, and live for the evenings or days when they can make for Cambridge, Newmarket or London and get connected with the world.


So how can Haverhill at one time be both modern and a backwater? In a curious way, the one is the product of the other. Because it has been a young town continually embracing change, it wants to be part of the modern world and does not have the fear of growth which villages and the so-called ‘historic’ towns have.


But because it is so inaccessible except by car, there is always that barrier between its youth and the modern world they want to be part of. Superfast broadband is coming, and will help, but there is no substitute for physical mobility.


Young people are surrounded by images of people like themselves hopping on a train, a tube, a bus or a bicycle to go shopping, and that is the leisure activity of choice among a generation which, until two years ago, was the most affluent ever. And they can’t.


London might as well be the moon to many, because how would they get there? Only fifty miles away, but it is easier from some places ten times as far. But then, transport works both ways. Although we may want to go there, why would anyone want to come here? That’s a story for another week...

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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