Home Page It's time to take a serious look at our endangered assets 27/10/17

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Hart of the Matter

Although it is desperately important to find a way of saving the old Corn Exchange in Withersfield Road from falling down altogether, it was always a plan of last resort that Haverhill Town Council alone should be the rescuers.

So the news that the council has decided to withdraw from the frustrating negotiations over the building is not really either surprising or disappointing.

Putting determined and continued pressure on the conservation department of St Edmundsbury Borough Council to follow through the legal powers they have to get something done is probably a better solution.

Even if the building were converted into flats, as long as its outside is preserved, it would not be a disaster. After all, no one has seen inside it for years and we are not much the worse for that. So long as no one can knock it down, that’s all that matters.

The best long-term solution would be a commercial one, such as the restaurant which was once planned before personal tragedy intervened.

The decision to withdraw means the town council will probably now look to use the funds they had earmarked to the Corn Exchange to improve the Arts Centre, maybe creating the sort of small performance space they had envisaged at the Corn Exchange, and for which there is a demand for rock bands and comedy acts.

However, they should not take their eyes off a much more serious conservation issue which has lumbered into view over the last year or two, just down the road from the Arts Centre – the Old Independent Church.

This iconic building, probably Haverhill’s most distinctive individual landmark, is in difficulties – or rather those responsible for it are.

As we mark next week the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, it is curious to see how this medieval Brexit has played out down the centuries.

The Roman Catholic Church (the ‘remainers’) is as unified as ever, and growing apace in this country due to migration, with the visible effect in Haverhill that the £1m needed for the beautiful new St Felix Catholic Church on the Parkway estate was raised within a reasonable space of time. A similar project has succeeded just as beautifully at the Priory in Clare.

Meanwhile, the Protestants (the ‘Brexiteers’) have fragmented in every direction. As soon as people began not to accept what they had been told, and started to think for themselves, they found they all thought something different from each other. Everyone’s ‘Brexit’ was different.

The result has been the numerous churches and chapels in cities, towns and villages up and down the country, many built with donations from rich supporters in prosperous Victorian England. Now most of them are far too big for their dwindling congregations.

If you watch TV programmes like Escape To the Country, you might be forgiven for thinking they have all been converted into desirable residences with huge windows, galleried landings and very little garden.

But some are too big for that, and the OIC is one of them. Even the church hall behind it (which was the original church before the big one with the spire was built by the Gurteen family in the 1880s) would make a good few flats, as plans drawn up a few years ago shewed.

At that time the United Reformed Church congregation, who are responsible for both buildings at a cost they can no longer sustain, hoped to sell off the church hall and use the cash to adapt the OIC itself to their current needs.

But there have been difficulties which, as far as one can gather, are insuperable. Even adapting the church hall would be a tricky job, because it has a beautiful wrought iron encircling gallery within it which English Heritage stipulate must be retained.

The church (by which I mean the congregation, not the building) are now exploring, among other options, ways of offloading both buildings and creating something new, more suited to today’s requirements, elsewhere in the town.

That will encounter difficulties as well. The OIC is not just any old building. Apart from its iconic exterior, it is the largest gathering space in the town, and by far the best concert hall.

Also, it contains one of the top six organs in East Anglia, a gigantic beast much beloved of many who are not connected with the church.

As long as the buildings belong to a church there is nothing the town council, or any other council can do to help. Current interpretation of the Local Government Act of 1896 maintains that councils can grant funding to help all sorts of organisations and buildings, but not churches.

A new legal opinion is being sought at Government level, and maybe the law might eventually get changed if necessary, because in villages in particular, the church is often the only community building left.

All community fund-raising through fetes, fun days, etc, is often diverted to paying to replace lead stolen from church roofs when it should be going elsewhere – but you have to stop the rain coming in.

So at present there is nothing the town council can do except talk and facilitate – and that is what they should be doing.

These buildings are probably the town’s greatest cultural asset. In a town of vision they might be converted into a stunning concert hall and a brilliant theatrical space - the church hall is strikingly like a mini-version of the Globe Theatre.

It took vision on the part of St Edmundsbury Borough Council to convert the former Town Hall into the Arts Centre. At the time many thought it a waste of money (over £1m more than 20 years ago) because it would never be used in Haverhill. Look at it now.

Unfortunately, the borough council was a lot better at the vision part of the project than at the ongoing management of it, so the town council had to take over and show how it could be done.

For decades we have been talking with pride about the Victorian heritage of Haverhill. Now Time has caught up with much of it and it is getting too late for talk alone. Someone has to step up to the plate and take these semi-redundant buildings into a new future which can benefit the town in a way which those who built them would respect.

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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