Home Page Have your say on town centre or this masterplan will be a familiar compromise 27/02/15

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Hart of the Matter

This week we got to see some indication of how the long-awaited masterplan for Haverhill town centre might look and, if you haven’t glanced at it yet, you will soon get the chance when it goes out to public consultation the week after next.

It is very important that as many people as possible have a say in this because, unlike some of the previous surveys and consultations with which we have been inundated over the years, this will lead to something with legal status.

That doesn’t mean any of it will necessarily happen, but it does mean that what is not in it would have a very big hurdle indeed to overcome to get permission. Not that such a thing is unheard of – you will remember that the whole Cineworld complex was not in the last masterplan, however much St Edmundsbury may go on about how it delivered that development.

Never mind, that is all in the past, and we now have to look forward to a new set of challenges, which will supposedly be summarised in the new plan.

So what is actually in this latest manifestation, entitled an ‘issues and options document’? That is just planning jargon meaning a summary of what the situation is (the issues) and what we might like to do about it (the options).

Considering that this process is costing £60,000 for the consultants who are carrying it out on behalf of ONE Haverhill, we have probably had £20,000 worth so far and, to be honest, it has only come up with one really new idea.

But perhaps that was only to be expected. There was so much documentation to draw on, which has all put forward ideas down the years, from Sir Frederick Gibberd’s masterplan drawn up in 1970, down to the Vision 2031 document finalised last year. It would be surprising if something startling and wonderful had escaped everybody for over 40 years.

Anyway, the new ideas, we are told, will mostly come forward in the draft masterplan itself, which will be put together, based on what we Haverhill residents have to say in response to this latest document, sometime in June. That is going to be the really exciting bit, the consultants say.

This document, if you cast a very careful and critical eye over it, is not without error – such as putting the Woolpack almost opposite the Queen’s Head in one map – and some of its basic tenets might draw argument from some quarters.

"Compared to nearby centres, retail rents are relatively low,” it states. If the comparison is with Cambridge that may be true, but there are businesses around in Haverhill who would take issue with the general implication. Some have found Bury rents to be the same as Haverhill. Either they are telling porkies, or the consultants are not fully informed.

Therein lies a snag in the one truly new and interesting idea which appears in the document. It suggests that the high street being so long, it tends to tail off at either end, and suggests the shopping area be contracted by allowing residential developments at either end – presumably Queen Street and that part of the high street beyond the arts centre.

More people living in the town centre, it says, will provide what it terms ‘natural surveillance’ and reduce anti-social behaviour. As it happens, we don’t get very much of that in Haverhill, particularly in the town centre itself. Nevertheless, one can see that more people living in the town centre would help because they would use its facilities.

Living as I do only a couple of minutes’ walk from the town centre, it wouldn’t occur to me to get into my car in order to avail myself elsewhere of any service which is actually present in the town centre, and more people in that position must be A Good Thing.

However, the two ends of the town centre provide the only places where rents are at all affordable to fledgling or struggling businesses, because the centre is far too expensive for them.

The document goes on to envisage that once the retail area is more concentrated, rents would be enabled to rise to a more reasonable level, I read with open-mouthed astonishment, as high rents have been the main reason for the exit of various shops from the high street over the past few years.

This is what comes of the otherwise very laudable idea of getting fresh eyes looking at the issue, giving a new perspective – you get a metropolitan view, in this case not London, but Milton Keynes, where DLA are based. They probably need to talk to our local traders.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of very good things in this document – acknowledgement of the currently wasted potential of the Stour Brook, a determination to build on Haverhill’s heritage, realisation that the backs of buildings are not a nice backdrop to one’s first arrival in Haverhill, by car or, particularly, bus.

They point to the alleyways being unattractive routes from the car park to the high street, but without explaining how anything can be done on the property of absentee owners who won’t engage with anyone. They think signage is poor – that is an understatement – and the public realm could be greatly improved.

This latter leads neatly into what I notice someone on line has already dubbed the Elephant in the Room – pedestrianisation, which they don’t seem to have a particular view on, preferring to be led by public opinion from the consultation.

I would guess that still means a majority in favour of it, although quite a slim one nowadays. There is certainly strong disillusion with the current ‘shared space’ situation, and that affects how the public realm can be improved.

The money is there, we know, (or at least we hope so still) but it is pointless doing anything which the frequent wear and tear of passing traffic is soon going to degrade.

And then they finish off by talking about engendering community spirit. It is hard to see how this can be done by this document. They stress the aspirational side of the masterplan, but then require it to all be realistic and deliverable. That, in my book is not aspiration – it is compromise, and will not capture the imagination of a town which has been almost entirely created by compromise.

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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