Home Page Confusion results in people shooting the messenger again 31/05/13

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Hart of the Matter

The annual meeting of Haverhill Town Council earlier this week revealed the usual level of public ignorance about what the different tiers of local government are for and how they work.


That isn’t necessarily the fault of the public because it’s a complicated system to get your head around, but it does lead to some people getting unfairly criticised and other people seeming to get off scot-free.


There was a request that some guidance be made available to residents to tell them where to direct their complaints, and the town clerk agreed to look into this.


But it’s pretty straightforward, really. Almost everything now is the responsibility of Suffolk County Council in one way or another, unless it has been, or is in the process of being, offloaded by them into the private sector.


Street lighting – county council; highway maintenance – county council; education – county council; care of the elderly – county council; libraries – county council; police – county council; health – county council; and so on.


Some of these responsibilities are now heading into the private sector. Others are being taken over locally, or by other agencies. In Haverhill, education is now almost entirely down to the two academies and their all-through partnerships; care of the elderly at Place Court will be going to Care UK; the library is now run by a newly-formed private agency; there is a police and crime commissioner now in charge of policing; there are new clinical commissioning groups within the NHS; highways are due to be farmed out to a private contractor.


Within all this, the county council is still the responsible authority – in other words, by law it has to make sure the service is carried out, even if it is by other people.


St Edmundsbury Borough Council has some limited powers and responsibilities – housing, environmental health, planning, development control and so on. It has long ago passed its housing stock over to Havebury, but it is still the responsible authority which has by law to ensure the service is carried out.


Haverhill Town Council doesn’t have to do very much at all by law, and usually has to act as a conduit between residents and another authority.


So that is the legal set-up. Government funding goes to those authorities which are required to do things by law. Now we turn to what happens in real life. Suffolk County Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council are partly financed from our council tax, but largely from Government grant.


Since austerity bit, that grant has been cut massively and is due to be cut even more. Suffolk and St Edmundsbury, in consequence, have looked to cut back on what they do by farming it out to the private sector or cutting it altogether, because there is no money.


Haverhill, being peripheral to both authorities, but particularly to Suffolk, has been a prime target, which is why we have seen so many cuts. We have only three county councillors among 50-odd and only eight borough councillors among 40-odd.


The majority of them are members of the ruling Tory party on both councils, so although they may make a lot of noisy of protest, politics dictates they are likely to kow-tow in the end – and even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t do much good.


So almost anything you complain about will come down to the answer that there is no money for it. In that way they can all boast that they have kept council tax frozen for another year and get people to vote for them again, and services can go to – well, you fill in the blank. However, until now there has been a safety net in the form of Haverhill Town Council. They have tried to compensate – albeit from our own council tax – by stopping the gaps.


Now, I don’t claim that the town councillors are all financial whizz-kids or intellectual giants, but one thing I can say for certain, having viewed their activities minutely for many years, is that their hearts are in the right place, which is Haverhill.


It is a pity that politics interferes even at town council level, but that is just a fact of life. Within that spiky environment they work pretty well together across the party boundaries on behalf of the town. People who think the town council is a waste of time and money are like people who think the NHS is a waste of time and money – they should try a few days in a parallel universe where these things really don’t exist and see how they like it.


When I think of the way Haverhill fought for any sort of representation prior to gaining a town council in 1989, that anyone should want to get rid of it reminds me of those people who can’t be bothered to vote after their forefathers fought and died for suffrage.


Many may not remember how St Edmundsbury treated us before we had a town council – although you can see the results of it still by the way the town lags behind Bury despite more enlightened recent policies. If you think we get a raw deal now you should have seen it then.


In the end there is a pretty simple test when you find something to complain about – who is prepared to pay for it? If the answer is that there’s no money, then it was Suffolk or St Edmundsbury. If the answer is that we’ll see if there’s an innovative way we can achieve it from some financial pot or other, that means the town council has taken a hand, or one of your local county or borough councillors has had a rare victory.


The difference is this. Suffolk and St Edmundsbury do what they have to by law, and they react to extreme public protest – that’s all. Haverhill Town Council looks at what we lack and tries to come up with an idea to bring it about – not always with any degree of success.


Consequently, a monthly town council meeting may have 15 or 20 items on its agenda. Haverhill Area Working Party, St Edmundsbury’s group devoted to Haverhill affairs, meets six-monthly and has maybe two or three items on its agenda. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more.

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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