Hart of the Matter
With the approach of the festive season one might expect that, as well as individual presents, there might be something on the tree, or on Santa’s sleigh, for Haverhill.
After all the town has been a good performer through the past year, and shows signs of promise in 2016. However, as far as the powers that be are concerned it made a cardinal error in May by departing from the party line far enough to elect members from outside the usual system in some wards.
It is a fact universally acknowledged – or it should be – that if you back the wrong horse in elections you suffer the punishment over the next four years that your representatives lack any power and struggle to make the town’s voice heard in Bury or Ipswich.
Conversely, if you back the right horse, you can suddenly find that doors are opening to you, as Haverhill experienced in the late 1990s when we had senior representatives in the corridors of power on both St Edmundsbury Borough and Suffolk County Councils.
Of course, although one does not like to make any sort of party reference, it is always more difficult if the Tories are in charge, because even if Haverhill votes in a goodly number of Tory members, even they struggle to achieve much. The interests of both Bury and the rural villages are stacked against them.
Often Haverhill has voted in Tory councillors to the delight of their leaders in Bury or Ipswich, but those members, finding how little anyone actually listen to them, have gone native by the time it comes to the next election, and are finding common cause with people from other parties in the interests of the town.
This can cause it to look as if there is strife within the party, as these members say things at meetings and forums which go against the party line, because they want their residents to know that they are fighting for them and not just rolling over.
The more they do it, the less they are listened to, and the less they do it, the more chance that their residents will get fed up with them and ditch them at the next election, and the result is another four years of poor, or meaningless, representation.
But May saw the confirmation of something new – election of UKIP members. Now the process of punishing the town is well under way. It has become much more difficult to isolate and scrutinise what the borough and county are doing or not doing in Haverhill, and even more difficult to put any public pressure on them.
They had both already begun to insulate themselves against any negative responses, by offloading responsibility onto ONE Haverhill. This partnership is an absolute godsend to both borough and county, because it is unaccountable and yet can be presented as responsible for all sorts of things for which it is not really responsible at all.
After five years of battering at the doors of ONE Haverhill, the public are finally to be admitted to its board meetings. This is a good move, of course, but we need to be watchful that the process is not like skinning an onion – and I don’t just mean that it makes you cry.
ONE Haverhill, initially, was going to be a direct continuation of the Haverhill Partnership Forum, which met in public. There was no sense that it would go behind closed doors. But then it found a necessity to take some of its business in private, and formed an executive board, a smaller, less unwieldy, body, which would transact most of the business. This would meet in private (of course) in between the regular public forums.
Then the forums went to six-monthly, mixed in with Safer Neighbourhood Team meeting, so they were virtually submerged, and finally did not happen at all.
The strength of public feeling on this issue, expressed at the annual town meetings to Haverhill Town Council, led that body finally to issue an ultimatum that it would withdraw from the ONE Haverhill partnership unless meetings were opened up to the public, which achieved the desired result - eventually.
Now ONE Haverhill will meet in public, but will still take certain ‘sensitive’ issues in private – a privilege which mirrors that of the local authorities and is perfectly understandable, as long as it is only used as a last resort.
However, experience teaches that this may not always be the case, and anyway there are other ways of getting around this, which will be open to an unconstituted body in a way which they are not open to local authorities.
Don’t be surprised if we see a variety of ‘task and finish’ groups established. These would be made up of a few specially selected members, and directed at specific issues and they would (of course) need to meet in private but report back to the board. Focus groups, sub-committees – the list of possibilities is endless, meeting (of course) in private.
One way or another it will be managed so that the public, either with their own eyes and ears or via the press, do not get to hear what people actually said on important and controversial issues.
So where will we be able to hear our representatives speaking directly on important town issues? At Bury or Ipswich, if you have the time and resources to go, often during the day, and sit through numerous items affecting other areas to get to what you want. Maybe through your computer if meetings are filmed.
But certainly not in Haverhill, because St Edmundsbury’s Christmas present to the town this year is the scrapping of the Haverhill Area Working Party, the one properly accountable public forum left in the town, if you discount the town council whose powers are very limited.
I hate to say I told you so, but I did, back in September. One thing which our ruling representatives clearly do not want is for anyone to know what they think about anything. Merry Christmas.