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Its Teamwork for Harpenden Town

In the summer of 2011 The Harpenden Society made a fundamental reform in its organisational arrangements. First, it was unanimously agreed that its possible range of activities would be broadened to encompass all the social and cultural life of the town. Seven themes of concern were identified covering this civic canvas.

Seven Working Groups

Second, it was also decided that seven Working Groups should be established, with a committee member acting as the Convenor for each of them. Volunteers were recruited from amongst the membership of  The Society who could bring skills and enthusiasm of this specific nature and sometimes people joined The Society when invited or persuaded that they might play a part in a Working Group.

The Working Groups are primarily 'virtual' in character, sometimes meeting but more often offering advice or drawing attention to issues via email exchanges. As a reminder, the categories are Public Order, Built Environment, Economic Activity ( a 'Thriving High Street Network') Transport, Health and Social Welfare, Environmental Services, Education and Leisure.

Some eighteen months on – and a convenient time to assess the value of this exercise. In the first place, there is no doubt that the referential frame of  The Society has widened considerably to include more readily such concerns as shopping, health, schools and so on. In a word, The Society has become more a civic society in the widest sense and less an amenity society with a prime emphasis on planning, architecture and the overall ambience of the town.

Eyebrows have occasionally been raised over some of our interventions and the question asked whether we were being political. The answer is, of course, that we have attempted to be a 'moral barometer'  - the phrase former Town Mayor Michael Weaver eloquently coined to define our role – for the well-being of Harpenden in all kinds of ways. We have been prepared to query providers of services, both public and commercial, and to bring together interested parties to further decision-making. All this has been with a view to sustaining the high standards of life in the town.

In pursuit of this the Working Group venture has proved reasonably successful. Almost all the seven teams are up and running, although there is always room for new volunteers. Apart from advice and counsel, the groups have also involved themselves more practically. For instance, members of the Education and Leisure Working Group organised and provided the speakers for the recent public meeting on the town's leisure potential. (see page four for a report of this exercise)

A Strong Task Force

Moreover, there is another important element in all this. There are now as many as fifty people engaged at varied levels of commitment and energy in these Working Groups. That in itself is worthy of remark. It means that your committee has equipped itself with a strong task-force in support of what it does and thinks. This augurs well for the future. The Society has, in effect, assembled a nursery of talented and dedicated people who will undoubtedly supply leadership in the next generation of The Society's ongoing story.

A series of editorial commentaries on important Harpenden issues that should challenge thought and encourage inquiry and action.

8. Harpenden is Full

This time we revisit a theme addressed in the first of this series of essays (Spring 2011 issue) namely, the value of 'balanced communities'. These have been pleasingly defined as being composed of 'a mixture of people in terms of class, income, age, ethnicity and household type and provide a range of services, homes, schools, employment and transport, all easily accessible to their residents. They also tend to exhibit high levels of attachment to and participation in community life, mutual support and skills sharing.' Harpenden ticks many if not all of those several civic boxes.

It is necessary to rehearse these values at this time because, once more, the spectre looms, as many will have become aware, of major encroachment on the green belt of the town as well as other sporadic plans for development. The short-term, knee-jerk reaction of authorities is to stick new houses on the edges and in occasional patches of existing flourishing areas in the knowledge that the amenities are already there – and someone else will be left with the task of cramming children into already crowded schools or forcing cars down already packed roads. That delicate balance is spoiled. In a word Harpenden is full; its civil and social capacity is, in several regards, at tipping point.

In a recent document the Herts County Council has estimated that, at current levels of demand and suggested degrees of development, Harpenden will require over the next few years the equivalent of one six form entry secondary and one two form entry primary school, as well as extensions at existing schools. Can this be guaranteed as a prerequisite of building more houses? Infrastructure requires bold decisions. You cannot add easily add a fraction of a school because, say, fifteen more children have arrived in the town, any more than you can latch on a piece of roadway because thirty more cars have turned up. We need to be sure the amenities are properly in place before or at least at the same time as the occupation of the new housing.

A major structural deficit in Harpenden is employment. A report this January from the Centre for Cities recommends that major house building, along with relevant facilities, should be concentrated on places like Cambridge or Crawley, where the bustling signs of economic growth are most near to fruition, or like Burnley or Dundee, where building and 'retrofitting' empty houses would help kick-start stagnant local economies. Housing development that ignores the core need of jobs is lob-sided.

For half a century there has been no coherent national let alone local solution presented as the housing crisis has rumbled remorselessly on at a frighteningly increasing rate. If anything, fiddling at the edges makes matters worse, destructive often of what is reasonably equable in social terms.

The message from towns like Harpenden should be: 'don't spoil what has been achieved here; use us as a one of the models for the creation of balanced communities for others elsewhere'

Eric Midwinter

The Harpenden in Question

Spring  2013 Newsletter