Hart of the Matter
If there is one lesson which we might all take on
board from the awful events last week at Grenfell Tower in West London, it is
that councils are actually quite important things.
Some flack has been levelled at the Government, but
the heaviest fire has been aimed at South Kensington & Chelsea Borough
Council – and deservedly so. Not only may they be implicated in some of the
decisions that led to the fire but they clearly showed themselves inept at
dealing with the aftermath.
Watching the moments on Thursday afternoon when an
apparently peaceful demonstration suddenly surged towards the council’s
headquarters was quite a sobering moment for any British subject. We just don’t
expect to see that in this country. To quote Lady Bracknell, it reminded one of
the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
But I wonder how many people in that furious crowd had
actually voted when that council was elected. Not many, I would guess. Turnout
at local council elections is notoriously low.
Maybe, because the last time borough and district
councils were up for election coincided with a General Election, it was been
bigger than usual.
But if, for instance, there were some sort of
catastrophe in Haverhill and hundreds of us were made homeless overnight, the
responsibility for doing something about it would lie with St Edmundsbury
Borough Council and Suffolk County Council.
In May there was a Suffolk County Council election,
and the overall turnout was just 44 per cent. It isn’t clear to me how that figure
is calculated because only two of the 75 wards exceeded that level and most
were well below it. The two Haverhill wards polled at around 27 per cent.
So, as far as I can see, nearly three-quarters of the
voting population of Haverhill could have no gripe if the county council
utterly failed in its response to a disaster here. Is that a comfortable
If you think not, then here is something to consider.
There is a move afoot for St Edmundsbury Borough Council to merge with Forest
Heath District Council, which covers the Newmarket, Mildenhall and Brandon
There is soon to be a public consultation on this
issue. This, as members of Haverhill Town Council agreed at their meeting this
week, would be the single most significant change to the way we are governed
locally since 1974 when Haverhill Urban District Council was abolished and we
were lumped in with Bury St Edmunds to form the Borough of St Edmundsbury.
But how many people in the town will bother to take
part in this consultation process? Very few, I would suggest.
You may think it is a foregone conclusion, it will
happen anyway, so there is no point – and I can understand why you might feel
that. But it doesn’t absolve us all from the responsibility of at least doing
our best to put our point of view.
Would you feel any better as a resident of Grenfell
Tower if you had done nothing to warn anyone of the potential dangers, or, as
is clearly the case with the residents, had done everything in your power to
draw attention to it, even though no one listened? Surely it is better to have
So how would such a merger affect us? The first thing
is that it is estimated to save about £4million. The two councils are already
sharing a lot of services, so the savings now are not huge.
And what would we get for the savings? Well, we would
still be the second biggest town in the new West Suffolk District Council, as
they would brand it, but we know what that has meant for decades in St
Edmundsbury. And now we would be competing with Newmarket, a town which has a
certain economic clout.
Perhaps the most worrying effect would be on local
democracy. There are currently 45 members on St Edmundsbury Borough Council,
and 27 on Forest Heath District Council. At district council level 72 members
looks unwieldy, so the Boundary Commission would be likely to reduce it to a
more manageable number.
You can be pretty sure Haverhill would lose one or
two. Not only that, but the current Conservative majority would be strengthened
and made impregnable to almost any political turnaround nationally, such as
unseated them for the first time in St Edmundsbury in 1995.
No one knows what would happen to the mayoralty. Bury
St Edmunds is a borough with a mayor, and that was retained on the creation of
St Edmundsbury in 1974. Forest Heath was a completely new invention in 1974,
linking the forest area of Brandon with the heath area of Newmarket, and it
currently is a district council with a chairman.
These are just cosmetic differences, but they add a
bit of ceremonial to the St Edmundsbury area. The mayors are just figureheads
with no real power, not like the elected mayors who are currently being created
for cities. Power rests with council leaders and their cabinets.
St Edmundsbury’s leader Cllr John Griffiths, has
wanted this merger for years. You can see why. It would add hugely to Bury’s
prestige and its clout within Suffolk. We know that Bury already thinks it
should be the county town, and not Ipswich.
Then they talk about the ‘West Suffolk’ brand as being
easier to sell. Of course, there was a West Suffolk before 1974 – West Suffolk
County Council, based in Bury.
But at district level, it seems odd to be aiming to
increase the size of the operation. Joint working is also taking place in other
areas – Babergh and Mid-Suffolk, for instance. But both of those are large
authorities, with over 40 councillors, so merging would be even more
controversial, although it has been mooted.
It would seem so much better to me for Bury to be
hived off to join another authority, and for the new council here to adhere to
the current parliamentary constituency boundary, which runs up as far as
Brandon. Haverhill would then be the biggest centre, and we could have the
headquarters here. Job done.
Just make sure you participate in the consultation.