Home Page How much is a degree of local independence worth? 25/02/11

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

Amid all the controversy of Haverhill Town Council agreeing a 20 per cent rise in their fraction of our council tax for the coming year, there was one word which will have struck a chord with anyone who has lived in Haverhill for any length of time – independence.


The decision, it was said, will make Haverhill ‘independent of Bury’ and able to provide locally for local needs. It could not have been more in line with the Government’s localisation bill which is currently going through Parliament, although it may be at odds with the politics behind it.


But more than that, it had a distant echo of an old-fashioned clarion call for Haverhill to declare UDI, such as used to be heard in the 1980s when, after nearly a decade of rule from St Edmundsbury, everyone was yearning for the old Haverhill Urban District Council and debates where Haverhill was at the centre instead of on the fringes.


Of course, it is massively deceptive to talk of any real independence from St Edmundsbury, just as it would be of Suffolk County Council. Major decisions affecting the town will still be taken in Bury and, increasingly, in Ipswich, as witness all the recent cost-cutting measures.


But here in Haverhill we will have an organisation which can try to mitigate some of these locally, as long as it is not so strapped for cash that it can only think of how to avoid redundancies.


It is annoying that we have to pay over the top to achieve this but, right or wrong, some of these decisions can now, to a degree, be taken in Haverhill by Haverhill people, which is what residents here overwhelmingly want.


The really annoying thing is that we still have to pay Bury and Ipswich the same amount of council tax this year for their continually reducing services. It’s like reducing a chocolate bar by a quarter and trumpeting the fact that you haven’t put the price up.


The fly in the ointment is, sadly, a political one. We have seen a part of it in the legislation which will come into force next year requiring a costly referendum over ‘excessive’ council tax rises by town or parish councils. As so often with such legislation, the definition of excessive is unclear, but Haverhill Town Council has managed to get in before it happens, so hopefully it won’t be needed.


Presumably the Government hopes it can ‘cap’ these grass roots councils in this way. They are the only parts of local government which have not been savagely capped since the days of Margaret Thatcher. I must admit that when I look at the salaries of some of the officers of county and district councils around the country, including Suffolk’s own dear Andrea Hill at £220,000 a year, I begin to wonder if the Iron Lady wasn’t right after all.


But what is really needed is a strict cap on how much local authorities can pay out in salaries, to keep the number and cost of public sector employees down, but a loosening of what they can spend on projects and resources, which give business to the private sector.


To a limited degree I am less concerned about library opening hours than about the way they are resourced. If the stocks are very good, then the opening hours could be adapted to meet the times of greatest demand. There seems to be an embedded culture in the public sector that the way to spend money on a problem is to fund another two or three posts to deal with it.


Much better – and cheaper - to fund the resources well enough that volunteers are encouraged to become part of the service provision because they can take pride in it.


The Big Society will never work if the number one priority of the newly-enlarged voluntary sector is to continually find ways of cutting back on what it does. Nobody wants to do that voluntarily – most of us spend too much of our time being paid to do it for a living.


Town and parish councils are about as near to volunteer groups as you can get within local government. They have very few employees and the councillors get none of the fat allowances that borough and county representatives get.


If it comes to Haverhill Town Council as an option to run either the library service or the youth service in the town, there will be a point where it has to pass the test of being a ‘suitable organisation’.


I hope this means conventional vetting to make sure important services are not handed over to irresponsible or dangerous people. But I am rather afraid it may mean something very different.


It may be a final political hurdle to ensure these services are removed entirely from the public sector and not just farmed out to a public-sector-by-proxy.


If that is the case then the Big Society is doomed before it starts. Town and parish councils are the local grass roots – local people making local decisions and locally accountable at local meetings (or even in the street). You can’t fulfil the concept of localisation any 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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