Home Page Is this meeting about policing, or is it a lot wider than that? 14/03/14

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

Haverhill really is the most extraordinary place in many ways and must often give people at regional and national levels cause to scratch their heads.


Take the Safer Neighbourhood Team public forums, one of which took place on Monday night and provided an unusual insight into the nature of local democracy – or lack of it.


These forums are a relatively new invention, part of a drive to make the police more accountable to their local area, and different places have come up with different ways of establishing them – in many cases they are not even public at all.


In the places where forums actually involve members of the public directly, organisers have tried different times of day and different places in order to engage the community to the greatest extent. At least, so we are told.


It may be that the police in some areas don’t really want to be told what to do by the public so they set up their meetings at awkward times and places on purpose to make sure hardly anyone comes. That is just one step away from keeping them in private, with just a committee of elected people.


Here in Haverhill various methods have been tried. We began with them taking place on weekday afternoons, and the reason for that is connected with exactly what constitutes a Safer Neighbourhood Team.


SNTs are supposed to pull together all sorts of different agencies such as the councils, Havebury, the utilities, the agencies and so on, and they were held monthly, in the afternoons of a working day, so that representatives of these organisations could be present. Forgive me if this sounds a bit like ONE Haverhill, but that was not even thought-of then.


Thus, when a query was raised by a member of the public about, say grass-cutting or street lighting, an officer from the borough or county council or Havebury or whoever was responsible, would be there to make a note and suggest ways in which the problem could be sorted out – and then go away and do it.


The problem was that not many members of the public attended, and they were generally retired people, being around in the afternoons, so it wasn’t much of a cross-section of the population.


Some places probably still carry on with this – I don’t know. But the police, who lead the SNT initiative, decided it wasn’t representative enough, and that it needed to be at a time when the public in general could attend, ie the evenings.


The problem then, of course, was that none of the organisations could be represented by officers who could actually get anything done, apart from the police, because only they work 24/7. To get council officers would be a cost to the taxpayer in overtime, and to get anyone else from a private organisation like Havebury would just be uneconomic for the organisation.


So the meetings were moved to the evenings and the onus fell entirely on the police to filter issues through from the forum to a weekday troubleshooting meeting held in private the following week when officers of the other organisations could be present.


There was a confusing moment when ONE Haverhill was formed, and tried to have its public forum combined with an SNT meeting. Since then ONE Haverhill has, to my knowledge, never held any of its promised twice-yearly public forums.


Somehow, out of that evening, the SNT meetings began to take on a different character. They became better attended, they began to focus on high street traffic and parking issues which had been brought up then seriously, for the first time, within the ONE Haverhill discussions, and the police became not just the leaders, but the shapers of the meetings as well.


It was as though people saw the SNT forums as a filling the void of public accountability in Haverhill, and this was extended by the Guy MacGregor meeting of famous memory.


But the most curious thing of all was that these meetings, now moved to quarterly, were getting 30 or 40 members of the public attending regularly (over 70 in the case of Cllr MacGregor).


Senior police chiefs, looking at figures across the county, and even more senior ones nationally, would struggle to find anywhere which attracts more than half a dozen people to its SNT public forum. These are places with, very often, high crime rates and very serious policing issues.


They would naturally assume that Haverhill must be a place of extremely serious criminal behaviour and police failings to get this sort of attendance - and then they would look at the statistics. That is when they would scratch their heads.


Some of the lowest crime rates for any town in low-crime East Anglia? Why, then, are all these people turning out to public meetings about their policing? What’s going on?


The answer is that because there are no serious crime issues in Haverhill, no one comes to the SNT meetings with anything to say, and that means they start talking about non-criminal issues like parking. And that, of course, affects everyone, not just a little estate with a criminal problem.


There were 30 people at Monday night’s meeting, and 20-odd following the innovative live-steaming. But to suggest that that is a democratic representation of Haverhill, any more than the old afternoon meetings were, is ludicrous.


It’s just been a talking shop – an opportunity for people to grind axes in public. Monday was different, because common sense prevailed to a degree, and the new format of voting is a lot fairer than it was and keeps the meeting a lot tighter.


Either this is a police priority-setting meeting, as it was on Monday, or it is about a lot of wider issues as it used to be, in which case the mayor is probably right to question the way the high street issue has been sidelined. Major police priority perhaps it should not, but a safety issue it quite definitely is – and where was there anybody present to answer 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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