Home Page Have your say about Haverhill next week - if they'll let you 02/09/11

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

So what bugs you most about Haverhill? Traffic, shops, parking, facilities, transport, crime – any of those? If so, you can get it off your chest at a public meeting next week.


Of course one hates to sound smug, but.... regular readers of this column may remember that the best part of a year ago I wrote about a thing called One Haverhill, and said we would be hearing a lot more of it in the future.


Well, here it is. One Haverhill actually appears in public for the first time on Monday evening at Burton End School. Only it’s not a solo performance. The new kid on the block will be sharing a platform with a long-established entertainer, Haverhill Safer Neighbourhood Team (SNT).


Here’s a quick bit of background. The SNT has been around for a few years, and initially involved all sorts of agencies. It met monthly during the afternoons, led by the police, and tried to tackle issues brought to it by the public.


Meanwhile, and even longer-established group was meeting slightly less often, Haverhill Partnership, made up of representatives of all sorts of agencies, and led by St Edmundsbury Borough Council.


Both these groups seemed to have an almost limitless remit, and often used to talk about similar issues.


St Edmundsbury had also put together a group called Haverhill Area Working Party – a sort of sub-committee of councillors and officers, but with other interested parties represented. This met behind closed doors and used to talk about similar issues. Then they opened it to the public.


You get the picture – lots of meetings, all often talking about the same thing, and involving the same people.


Things changed a bit when the police decided the SNT meetings were not attracting enough members of the public, so they changed them to evenings. That meant most of the agencies would not be represented, because in the public sector you have to pay officials extra for working in the evenings.


Also, they were often talking about the same things over and over again, so the police decided they only needed to be quarterly. In between times there would be follow-up meetings during the day so the agencies could attend, but not open to the public.


Haverhill Partnership became too big and unwieldy, so it met less frequently, but in between a few senior representatives got together for ‘executive’ meetings – not in public.


Meanwhile, the local authorities came to the conclusion that Haverhill Partnership was not working very well. It was a talking shop with limited powers. It met during the day so it was a nice little couple of hours out of the office for countless council officers, but business people, who claimed to be busy during the day, could not attend, reducing it to being representative of only two of the three sectors – public and voluntary.


So the idea of One Haverhill was born, with a board, made up of private, public and voluntary sectors (one business, three elected voluntary and about 900 appointed public sector representatives).


It will meet twice a year in public and set up task-and-finish groups to deal with particular issues. Its board meetings will not be in public, but the minutes of them will be published on its website.


For its first meeting, it is joining forces with the SNT quarterly public meeting. So this will be an SNT meeting, but members of the One Haverhill Board will be there. How that will formally constitute a One Haverhill public meeting will be made clear on the night.


The main advantage, we are told, is that all this will prevent duplication and things won’t be talked about over and over again at separate public meetings. That makes sense.


However, one cannot escape the fact that the amount of actual discussion in public is being eroded away at an alarming rate. The number of times that an active resident (or trouble-maker, depending on your point of view) can stand up and berate councillors or officers of agencies is being reduced dramatically.


These public meetings are divided into focus groups whose discussions are fed back at the end. This hamstrings anyone who fancies themselves as a public orator, however ill-informed or misguided, and I’m not sure that that is the object of democracy.


The system will probably work efficiently enough – maybe more efficiently than the old one – but the perception is often that people cannot have their say and everything is decided in advance or behind closed doors.


Transparency is going to be a vital contributor to the success or failure of One Haverhill. That doesn’t just mean us being told what the organisation is doing. It means accountability in public – facing up to critics in the public arena, where many like to have their say, not hiding away behind e-mails, telephones, evening unavailability, one-to-one surgeries – and providing answers in public there and then, not a fortnight later by letter.


At the last SNT public meeting there was no one officially present from the county council to field the general annoyance about illegal town centre parking. The job was forced on the police as a consequence (not a bad thing), but the result has been fairly unsatisfactory all round. One Haverhill has got to do a lot better than that.

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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