Home Page Councils are important, so have your say about ours 21/06/17

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Matthew Hancock
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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 statistic?

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 areas.

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 tried.

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.

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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