Home Page Haverhill shows Parliament the way to vote for inaction 30/08/13

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Hart of the Matter

So, they put down the motion and couldn’t get it through. And then the others put down the opposite motion and couldn’t get that through either, so the end result is that nothing will happen at all.


This all occurred yesterday, and you may be forgiven for thinking I mean in Parliament, but that is not the case. I mean at the Haverhill Area Working Party of St Edmundsbury Borough Council.


The fact that Parliament followed suit - in the way so many national developments follow on from those which have been trialled in Haverhill first nowadays, it seems – just shows how far ahead of the game we are here in south-west Suffolk.


Both decisions were, in their way, equally shocking. That a prime minister should not be able to carry his party with him in one of the most crucial and defining moves of his premiership may have left people open-mouthed in Westminster, but I can tell you there will have been some pretty open mouths in the planning department in Bury St Edmunds after HAWP dug its heels in and sent the conservation officer away empty-handed.


The previously toothless tiger showed it has some fangs after all and one can only applaud its decision, even if it was, in the end, a decision to do nothing.


St Edmundsbury had decided it was costing too much in officer time trying to implement some regulations which could see the retention and even revival of the more historic features of some of Haverhill’s buildings.


The Article 4 Directions, which remove the right of property owners to make changes to exterior features like paintwork, windows and doors without permission, had been put in place in a couple of areas of the town ten years ago, but so far with little effect, so the council said.


It therefore planned to remove them, so save resources. This would have meant that people could paint their houses the sort of gaudy yellow, for instance, which assaults the eyes opposite Tesco roundabout, in the areas concerned.


They were not in the specific conservation areas in Haverhill town centre – Queen Street and Hamlet Road, which are unaffected - but in ancillary roads nearby, and only applied to single-use residential properties.


But, rather as the Government is now paying for it predecessor’s Iraq War fiasco years ago, the council suffered a defeat because of past failures in planning enforcement.


It was ironic, and perhaps apt, that HAWP’s discussions coincided with the decision from St Edmundsbury’s planning director to do nothing about STP’s replacement of its windows on the corner of Camps Road without planning permission.


Planners had been in discussion with STP about applying for permission retrospectively, members were told, but no application had come forward and now STP were not engaging in further debate. I don’t know all the facts but that’s what the council claims, anyway.


Members were told it was not in the public interest to spend money enforcing something which didn’t exactly harm anyone, and might even be viewed as an improvement by some.


The inequity of this, in the light of some of the past enforcement which has been taken extremely forcefully (remember the mauve house in Clare?), cast a shadow over the whole debate and was probably the last straw, if one was needed.


To a degree one could follow the council’s argument that Article 4 Directions operate better in Bury where most of the features are still in place and it is a matter of preserving them, than in Haverhill where most of them have gone and the aim is to persuade owners to put them back.


But the logical conclusion to that would be that you need to spend more resources in Haverhill to make them operate properly.


Councils have become a bit of a pushover for bullies and bluffers since the economic crunch. All you have to do is threaten that you will fight all the way to the High Court or a planning inquiry and they immediately panic and ask themselves whether the costs of standing up for the law are in the interests of council tax payers.


We’ve seen it in the High Street traffic order saga with Suffolk County Council and now we see it in operation at St Edmundsbury as well. What is right is no longer the yardstick. The criteria now are all about value for money.


This is a very grey and worrying area because we have, so far, barely been aware of how much we depend on local authorities to implement the laws which govern our everyday lives. We think the law is down to the police, and certainly that is the case for the criminal law.


But there is a lot of civil law surrounding planning, traffic regulations, building regulations, environmental health and so on, which has to be enforced by local authorities, and if they are going to decide whether or not to do it depending on how poor they are, we are in real trouble.


It won’t be long before every cowboy in the land – and many from other parts of Europe – are aware of the fact that it is becoming ‘open season’ round here, as one councillor put it yesterday.


But it surely doesn’t take a genius to see that the whole money-saving argument is flawed and self-defeating. Members were told the council considered it more cost-efficient to put resources into preventing infringements of the planning law, rather than enforcing after they happen.


But, as with the criminal law, the best method of prevention is to make it pretty certain you will be caught and it will cost you a serious punishment. There wouldn’t be so many people keen to take the councils on then.

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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