Home Page Let's have some ideas which lead to joined-up thinking at last 20/03/15

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

After a week away catching up with some friends in the West Country, I return to find the public consultations about what should be in the town centre masterplan is in full swing.

I do hope everyone is filling in the questionnaire with all their imaginative ideas. Meanwhile, it was quite nice to stroll around other towns, as I always try to do when in different parts of the country, and see how they are doing.

Curiously, I came back more encouraged than disheartened because many town centres seem to be facing exactly the same problems as Haverhill, so we are not alone.

Not only that, but they seem to have come up with some of the same solutions. Whether this is due to the Internet, to some new book which has come out called How To Stop Your Town Centre’s Decline, or whether it is just because great minds think alike, I have no idea.

For instance, I saw in action in more than one town the suggestion, which the Kent Business School came up with and which ONE Haverhill is now taking forward, to have brightly coloured artwork of local public information plastered over the windows of empty shops.

It looked quite good, I have to say, and it certainly brightened up the street scene. I believe a stumbling block to the idea in Haverhill so far has been the difficulty of engaging with the owners of town centre premises to get permission and access.

Some of the examples I saw of this idea in other towns showed that their community leaders had not let any such problems stand in their way. They had had huge graffiti-proof laminated panels made up and just fixed them to the outside of the windows.

I guess the cost of that is a lot greater than posters fitted inside, but it did at least show a praiseworthy ‘can-do’ attitude.

I probably would not be any use as a community leader because I wouldn’t have any patience with these absentee landlords over the alleyways either. Why not have them panelled and painted, or whatever else you want to do to cheer them up and make them less intimidating to visitors and see what happens.

If the landlords want to take any action they will have to make themselves known and ‘engage’ to that degree. I doubt if they would bother, anyway. But, of course, that is not the way things are generally done in this country.

We always have to go through ‘due process’, which usually results in something positive being delayed for long enough that it never happens.

Which brings me to the subject of two bogged-down sites in Haverhill town centre – the two most important sites, as it happens. While movement on the Gurteen site is deferred until the masterplan consultation is over, the old Co-op in Jubilee Walk looks as dead as ever.

One must presume that the masterplan will prioritise these two sites and the problem of traffic flow as the three most important issues in the town centre – at least I imagine they will if they take any notice of what the public tell them.

I have reminisced often enough about Gurteens, so perhaps it is time to look more closely at Jubilee Walk, which is an everyday story of ineptitude.

I suppose the decision by Sainsbury’s to build a store there as part of the redevelopment of the site of the old Ram pub and its neighbouring properties was one of the best and most sensible plans ever to be executed in the town centre.

At a stroke it brought us our first really big supermarket, a load of car parking space and a widening of the high street’s retail envelope. Glasswells took the prestige corner development and we gained the first little side lane of shops and the first pedestrianised area.

It was the mid 1970s, and in its way the development was as exciting and significant as that of Queen’s Square was at the other end of town more than a decade earlier.

Who could have imagined that within 40 years of each of these being created they would come to symbolise the decline of each area.

Both areas have also been ‘refurbished’ by St Edmundsbury Borough Council over recent years, although in the case of Queen’s Square it was only the forecourt of it, as the council does not own the square itself.

But I wonder whether anyone who did not know this would be able to identify any evidence of either of these much-trumpeted projects. The horse-trough and the cat are about all that survive to tell the tale and I doubt if many visitors notice either.

Queen’s Square is privately-owned, the Co-op and Jubilee Walk publicly-owned, but it makes no difference. In fact, in an indirect way we, the people of Haverhill, own the old Co-op. It’s just that we can’t get at it to do anything about it because of some stupid lease and the attitude of the leaseholders.

When Sainsbury’s moved out of town 25 years ago, there was none of this long-drawn-out uncertainty. With the announcement of the move came the revelation that the Co-op was to take over the store.

If any uncertainty was created it was over the fate of the former Co-op building, that wonderful and underrated creation opposite the market square which now houses Peacocks and Argos.

It seems that, by allowing the retailers to set up the other side of Ehringshausen Way, as Aldi and then Tesco did, the council have shot the potential for their own (I should say our own) asset in the foot.

So we come back to the old complaint that there has never been any joined-up thinking at work here. If the masterplan could at least deliver that, it will not have been a vain exercise.

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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