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Matthew Hancock
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Time to give our town a bit of respect

Friday, 30th October 2009.

ANNE GOWER, the councillor who has just been given the role of championing Haverhill on St Edmundsbury Council, has been telling Haverhill-UK News’s DAVID HART how she’s determined to instill a bit of respect for the town in high places.

While Anne Gower was watching the count for the 2007 local elections she had a bit of a shock realisation – the polling papers had her name on them and lots of them had a little cross against it.

Having been persuaded to stand as a councillor by chance, after becoming involved in the protests against a phone mast at Hazel Stubb, the reality of it only then began to sink in.

“I became quite emotional,” she said. “These people had voted for me, and I take voting very seriously, being a woman and remembering the suffragettes. That’s when it all became real.”

She was elected to both Haverhill Town Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council, and has since become a member of Suffolk County Council as well.

“I thought: ‘If I’m going to do this, I want to do it to the best of my ability.’ And that’s what I have tried to do since.”

Without realising it, she had some useful background – years of working in the voluntary sector, in sales and as a top level PA, had given her skills and insights which suddenly came into play.

She and her husband Ian have no time-consuming family ties, and she has no job, so at 58 she is now one of a handful of people in Suffolk who sit on councils at all three tiers of local government.

But now she faces a new and more demanding challenge as she has been given the role of portfolio holder for Haverhill and for housing and homelessness, and with it a seat on the cabinet, which runs St Edmundsbury Council.

The creation of the post is partly about filling the vacuum left when the council decided not to replace its corporate director with responsibility for Haverhill, Mike Dawson, who left recently.

“I am not Mike Dawson and I can’t do what he did,” says Cllr Gower, “but I have people who are still around who I can go to on various issues.”

These are the council’s chief executive Geoff Rivers, who has taken over as the lead officer for Haverhill, and the other members of the cabinet who previously held the responsibilities which Cllr Gower is now taking over, Cllr Nigel Aitkins, who had Haverhill, and Cllr Sarah-Mildmay-White, who had housing.

Cllr Gower has lived in Haverhill for eight years, which she admits is nowhere near long enough to understand its many complexities. “But I have spent two-and-a-half years trying to get under the skin of the town,” she said, “and I think I am beginning to succeed.

“It is a very individual town and part of the trouble has been that people some distance away, in Ipswich or wherever, don’t understand that. They have to learn to respect Haverhill as a unique place in its own right.”

She feels she is uniquely well-placed to instill this respect, because she works within the councils at all three levels. “My first priority will be to bring in a bit of joined-up thinking, with communication between town, county and borough,” she said.

Another concern is over the town’s self-perception. “A lot of people still talk it down, but it has changed beyond all recognition from the town I came to eight years ago,” she said. “Haverhill has two very important strengths: it welcomes growth and it has a strong sense of community – in various different places.

“But you can’t force people to change their perceptions. All you can do is provide services and hope people will think differently. People have to take an element of responsibility for themselves – to be proud of where they live.”

Her in-tray will have many issues piled up in it – the north-west Haverhill development and link road, the possible development of north-east Haverhill, if accepted, the town centre, the sites which await development such as Project, Wisdom and Gurteens, and the involvement of local businesses.

“I will try hard to work with businesses because they are the lifeblood of the town,” she said. “I recently chaired a very frank and good meeting with Queen Street traders, and I told them I am here to represent business ratepayers in the town just as much as residents.”

By not replacing Mr Dawson, St Edmundsbury saved itself around £70,000 a year. Cllr Gower’s member’s allowance of £5,000 a year, will be doubled to take account of her new responsibilities so, on the face of it, she might look like a cheap option. But if councillors and officers in Bury or Ipswich are thinking she will be an easy option, they might just be in for a rather rougher ride than they were expecting.

“When I go into a meeting my priorities are Haverhill first, Haverhill second and Haverhill third,” she said. Now that should make for some interesting exchanges.

Haverhill Online News

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