Home Page Community budgeting seems to be getting more complex, not simpler 14/08/12

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

The funding of services and facilities in Haverhill is always in the spotlight, more or less, but this week has featured several developments which bring the issue into sharper focus.

The levels of investment, from Government, from local authorities, from agencies and from utilities, are the main topic for discussion by the newly-formed ONE Haverhill board, which aims to bring them all together and give the town a greater say in exactly how they are directed.

That has made ONE Haverhill an ideal ‘delivery vehicle’ for a Government project on community budgeting, and is one of the reasons Haverhill was chosen as one of ten such pilots nationwide.

The bid for that was led by Haverhill Town Council, making this one of only two of the pilots to be led by a town council. The other one is from Ilfracombe, a delightful harbour and seaside resort in north Devon, which features on many a postcard and calendar and is perhaps best known as the starting point for a trip to Lundy Island.

Haverhill has, as far as I know, only ever featured in one nationally produced calendar, which was the roundabout one in which our Spirit of Enterprise was December, and even that must have had a limited appeal.

There are a few postcards of Haverhill available now, but again, they probably have limited appeal. So how could these two communities have anything in common?

The visit here last weekend by the leader of Ilfracombe Town Council gave the chance for that question to be explored and, bizarre as it may seem, I am sure there were parallels to be drawn, because local government is local government, wherever it may be.

Even in picturesque Ilfracombe someone has to collect rubbish, someone has to cut grass, someone has to control planning and so on. And it all has to be paid for somehow. Just because lots of people turn up to stay in hotels and B&Bs, that doesn’t mean they contribute any council tax.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Council is going through the ongoing process of reducing its costs by cutting down on what it does. The latest ‘divesting’ to be pushed through is the complete privatisation of road maintenance.

Until now the council has used both private companies and its own in-house highways repair department, but from next April it will all be private and millions of pounds will be saved from our council tax. It remains to be seen how efficient the private company that wins the five-year contract will be.

Potholes are one of those things which probably seem to be of very minor importance within an organisation the size of Suffolk County Council, but they assume huge significance to those of us who have to put up with them.

In the past, if you damaged your car by crunching into an unmarked pothole, you had some legal recourse to compensation from the council. Will that still be the case, or will we have to try to sue the company which should have filled the pothole? How would anyone prove responsibility, or whether and to whom the pothole had been reported? Time will tell.

Already we can see that the specific money being invested in Haverhill in the form of funding for services will become more difficult to estimate and to control. Will the company responsible for highway maintenance send a representative to ONE Haverhill? Of course not. Instead there will be a county council highways engineer who will have little or no clout in dealing with the contractor.

Another aspect of the same issue raises the question of what constitutes a service or a facility. For instance, is it within the remit of ONE Haverhill to look into arts provision in Haverhill?

If so, they might legitimately ask someone from St Edmundsbury Borough Council to justify the huge reduction in arts funding given to Haverhill in comparison with Bury St Edmunds.

The borough made a big saving by axing its grant to the arts centre, and however much you can argue about which came first, the cut or the council tax hike, we are now paying extra in our council tax, via the town council precept, to cover that.

However, we now hear the Apex – that huge, but not quite huge enough, venue built in Bury at a cost of £17.5million – is currently costing nearly three-quarters of a million pounds a year to run, which is coming out of our council tax in Haverhill, just like all the rest of the borough.

It’s a building of some quality acoustically, but, to me, not very much aesthetically. They are now talking about creating a trust to run it in conjunction with the Theatre Royal in Bury, which is also struggling. The theatre must have suffered drastically as a result of its refurbishment.

What was some sort of conservation project to return it to its Georgian origins has resulted in the most uncomfortable, inconvenient and, I would have thought, downright dangerous venue I have ever been in – and many I speak to feel the same and have stopped attending there.

Will this trust get grant funding from the borough? One assumes so, or else it won’t last a year. In that case, why is Haverhill Arts Centre - which is also, in a complex system it would take too long to explain, a trust - not eligible any more?

And if anyone tries to tell me that the Apex and the Theatre Royal are our ‘regional’ venues, my reply would probably be in the vernacular.

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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