Hart of the Matter
The building of new homes in Haverhill may have slowed up in the last few years, according to the latest planning document, but the townscape is still changing nevertheless.
The question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is changing for the better. You wouldn’t think so to read the views of expats on this website who have returned for a short visit and almost always go home saying how the town is much worse than they remember it.
That is bound to happen anywhere when people return nursing their fond memories of youth. We never want to accept that the scenes of the happy past have changed during our absence.
In general, most local residents would consider the town is changing for the better with the arrival of Tesco and the Cineworld complex and the upgrading of the leisure centre –and now we have an improved High Street to look forward to.
Sadly, none of this is very distinctive – and that is not a criticism just of Haverhill, but of urban architecture in general across the country. Tesco and Cineworld have brand designs to follow and from councils you tend to get rather unimaginative municipal architecture conforming to the prevailing fashion.
If you want to see something a bit different you have to leave the town centre and head up on to one of the old estates. In case you didn’t know, in the centre of the Parkway estate there is a Roman Catholic church.
You might have been forgiven for not noticing it in the past because it was a 1960s prefab building and looked more like an emergency village hall. However, you can’t be forgiven for missing it now because a new church is on the point of completion and it is very striking in appearance.
And if the outside is eye-catching, wait until you go inside. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview earlier this week and it shows what can be done with a bit of imagination.
I think the total cost of the building has been about £1million, which is a lot less than the huge sums we have heard bandied about in relation to the town centre’s latest newcomers, although they are, of course, a lot bigger.
However, the church members wanted something distinctive and that is what they have got. The opportunity has come their way because of the huge influx of congregation due to immigration from all parts of the world from Eastern Europe to India, bringing their faith with them.
So, after 50 years of struggling along in a temporary building the church now has something to be very proud of because its replacement makes a statement in up-to-the-minute, functional, yet very beautiful terms.
I don’t suppose it will please everyone because cutting edge design is not everyone’s cup of tea by definition. It tends to divide opinion as we have seen over the Spirit of Enterprise roundabout sculpture and the Queen Street gates, and may again over the proposed High Street public artwork.
But at least it says something and makes you look at it. I suppose the Cineworld curving windows and the Tesco tower do this to a limited degree, but only because they are new to Haverhill. We have all seen them elsewhere.
The more divisive items listed above cannot be seen elsewhere. They are specific to Haverhill. I see some rock star has posted online the fact that he visited Haverhill just to see the Queen Street gates. Hopefully people will do the same with regard to St Felix Catholic Church.
The more of this sort of distinctive architectural work we can encourage in Haverhill the better. And it could start with St Edmundsbury Borough Council being a little more imaginative than of late. I can’t say the new-look leisure centre jumps out at me. Even Suffolk County Council have done better with the new and extended schools, although the new bits of Place Farm remind me of the Scottish Parliament.
The closure of the Co-op has been a bit of a blow for Haverhill town centre, but it is also an opportunity. The site is owned by St Edmundsbury, as is the Jubilee Walk car park, so instead of it being a derelict site where commercial interests make it difficult for the council to have any influence, it actually presents some interesting options.
A retail study commissioned by the council has told them how central this site is to the whole town centre development and, rather than being mired in heritage issues and business interests as the Gurteen site is, here is one where some bright thinking could have a tremendously good effect.
At the moment most people are just hoping for another big player to take the store over. One has heard mention of Morrisons and of Wilkinsons. Fortunately, I would guess the current buildings and site arrangement are too constrained and old-fashioned for such players to be interested unless they are given more freedom over how to redevelop it.
Half the battle in successful town planning lies in recognising opportunities.