Hart of the Matter
If you have never been to a council meeting – and I guess that’s pretty much everyone because virtually nobody other than councillors or reporters attends in Haverhill – it probably sounds very dull.
All those great windbags sounding off at interminable length about such boring things as precepts, reports and partnerships, you would imagine. People who, judging from some of their decisions, have no experience of the real world with which the rest of us have to deal every day.
Well, that might have been so 30 years ago, but you couldn’t be further from the truth nowadays. In fact if council meetings are very dull now it is because nobody says anything very much.
That is the view of one of Haverhill’s very few regular attenders from the public, Frank Bradsell, reported fairly widely a week or two ago. Frank, who informally represents Haverhill’s older residents, had the cheek to tell Haverhill town councillors to their faces that their meetings were boring.
He could, with equal justification have made the comments at almost any meeting of any similar organisation nowadays – borough council, partnerships of one kind or another, etc.
Of course, yah-boo politics is out of fashion at the moment, and it generally doesn’t achieve very much anyway. The days when one party would propose a certain course of action and another party get up and tear its arguments to pieces with forensic humour are long gone.
In those days the subjects were often very dry and off-putting indeed, but the interchanges were generally entertaining.
Now we have the opposite. The subjects are often very immediate and affect our everyday lives directly, but the level of debate is almost non-existent.
The organisations themselves must bear quite a share of the blame. They have restructured the way they make decisions so that almost none of it happens in public any more.
I remember the triumph with which journalists won the right to attend council committee meetings. It had been full council meetings only, with the result that a lot was thrashed out in committee to keep it secret. I also remember how Haverhill Town Council led the way in allowing the public to speak at meetings during a public forum. It would be more interesting if more people took advantage of that.
But politicians, for all that many of them like to talk at you, aren’t so keen on you witnessing them arguing among themselves. So over the years they have created things like sub-committees, working parties, executive groups, etc, where the real argument can still go on ‘behind closed doors’, as journalists colourfully love to express it.
As a random example, there was a meeting of St Edmundsbury’s Haverhill Area Working Party last week, probably the most directly important body for the town centre, but the press and public are excluded from it. Councillors are quite happy to tell you all about it afterwards – but that’s not quite the same.
Of course there are many areas that councils and partnerships discuss which are sensitive, personally or commercially, and these should be kept secret. But it goes a long way beyond that. It is about how decisions are reached and not wanting anyone to know there was any dissension.
One thing that has changed a lot in recent years is that most councillors no longer like to listen to the sound of their own voices. You may say that is a good thing, but it means nobody else gets to listen to them either.
It also indicates to me that they lack the confidence of their predecessors. Many don’t like to speak at all in public, and this becomes apparent when they have to open new projects or talk to public meetings.
When Frank Bradsell made his cutting remarks he was told council meetings were not intended to be entertaining. Haverhill Town Council is a £1million business and, like many businesses, it doesn’t like being in the public eye.
It is true that committee meetings of town, borough and county councils are open to the public, and you get the odd argument at them - if you can spare the time to keep up with them - but Frank made a telling point when he said the full town council meeting should be the centrepiece of the town council’s work.
He could just as well have said it to the borough council, which years ago went over to the modern fashion for ‘cabinet’ government, which means that the crucial decision-making group is made up entirely of councillors of the ruling group, so there is little argument. Full council there has always only been a rubber-stamping talking shop, except in the most extreme cases.
Ironically, at the very next town council meeting members were bemoaning how poor they are at telling residents what a good job they do. Well, you can’t be both secret and high profile at the same time without some sort of Stalinist control of the media and the public. So they will have to decide which it’s to be.