Home Page Chalkstone plan - joined-up thinking or railroading? 05/03/10

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Hart of the Matter

If the economic catastrophes of the last couple of years are going to produce anything positive, you would think it would be in the way they teach us to pay a bit more attention to what we spend money on.

But throughout society, from the Government right down to the individual tax payer, there seems to be little sign of actual progress, even though there may be the popular will for it.

We seem to be the prisoners of some sort of inexplicable system that we never voted for or bought into in any way, so that despite our money being used to bale out banks, but not to bale out large-scale industries, we now have to accept it will be paid out in huge bonuses to bankers, not in keeping ordinary workers in jobs. I think you would find very few people who, if asked, would actually have wanted that outcome.

Similarly, at local government level, we find Birmingham council paying huge sums of money to a PR company to cope with the backlash from the case of the little boy who died, but not putting the money into the social services which could have protected him. I don’t think Birmingham people wanted that.

At an individual level, youngsters leaving education now face a very hard task in finding employment. Yet it is the very jobs which would give them a step up into employment which have been cut back – manual workers, social workers, etc – and many more lower-paid public sector workers will be axed this year – people such as toilet attendants.

Everyone agrees there are not enough social workers in our big cities, and they cost peanuts because they earn so little. But despite the fact that you could solve the problem by using a couple of banker’s bonuses, it can’t be done.

It all comes down to lack of joined-up thinking. So, this week, imagine my surprise when I caught a glimpse of what looks like joined-up thinking from Suffolk County Council in Haverhill, Mildenhall and Lowestoft.

Schools made redundant by the re-organisation from three-tier to two-tier education are going to be redeveloped as replacements for older and now less-than-suitable care homes.

Gosh! One hand (care provision) is actually aware of what the other hand (education) is doing, and using it for their mutual benefit.

Shame on all those cynics (me included) who said they were only re-organising education so they could sell off the school sites for housing and make pots of money out of them!

For a euphoric moment I thought pro bono public had become a reality.

However – and I’m not saying this is a bad thing, because councils are responsible for public money, taxpayers money, so they have to make the most of it – there is a little fly in this altruistic ointment.

In Haverhill, you will have seen, Chalkstone Middle School is the site chosen for a replacement for Place Court care home. There had been various other suggestions in the recent past for ways Chalkstone’s buildings would be kept in educational use – a town sixth form, a replacement home for Westfield Primary instead of the new buildings scheme under way next to Samuel Ward, and so on.

To be honest, it would have been a huge housing association development on that site, and private development in the middle of a former council estate was never going to work. So perhaps the land value was not as great as some of us at first imagined.

But if you use the land for another council purpose, and free up other, more suitable (and valuable) land for private development, that makes a lot more sense financially.

It’s being done by a PFI (private finance initiative), in itself a controversial issue, particularly since the credit crunch, because many PFIs turn out to be financed mostly by the Government now that banks are less willing to lend to the private sector.

Although the county council will own the new care home, a PFI generally means the service provision will be privatised, council-employed staff being transferred to the new provider.

The scheme is now out to public consultation, although you might have missed the fact because, as in the case of the schools review, the council have been a bit slow off the mark in sending out the literature. But one doubts if any public reaction would cause them to draw back now anyway.

And it is interesting that already the fate of one of the redundant school sites in Haverhill has pretty much been sealed, before anyone else has had a chance to have any sort of say. Is this the outcome people wanted? Maybe, but it’s nice to be asked. So much for town planning and community input.

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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