Home Page It's Localism, Jim, but not as we know it - as they want it 14/12/12

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Hart of the Matter

A year or two ago there was a new mantra being bandied around among the national politicians – Localism. Those of us of a cynical turn of mind thought this was just an excuse to get communities to pay for their own services and take the burden off central government.


In fact, that was only one strand in the concept as it has been rolled out. To begin with, there seems to have been a firm belief in the idea, championed by our recent visitor Eric Pickles, that local people know what needs doing, so it is best to let them get on with it.


We’ve seen this taken forward in the community budgeting pilots nationwide, of which Haverhill is one, being delivered through ONE Haverhill, a vehicle which was up and running already here and that made the whole idea even more practicable.


The reduction in central spending has gone on and been passed down from Government to the county councils and the borough councils, who have made cuts right, left and centre.


It was soon apparent in Haverhill that if any of these holes in services were going to be filled in the town council was going to have to do it. It may have been hard for us to accept, but there is a sort of logic in Haverhill residents having to pay for specifically Haverhill things through an increase in their council tax, precepted by the town council.


It would, of course, have been fairer if we didn’t still have to pay for things in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds which those authorities wanted to maintain for their centres and which cost such a lot that they call them ‘regional’ facilities and decide that we benefit from them.


Thus you will find quantities of your council tax going to support something like the Apex in Bury, or some grand redevelopment in Ipswich or Lowestoft, while less and less of that paid by those large communities filters down to provide anything for us smaller ones.


If that was the extent of the twisting of what was essentially a sensible idea – Localism – it might be annoying, but we would have just had to bite the bullet in these tough times.


However, something much darker and more sinister has been going on over the last year or two which militates directly against the concept of Localism and yet claims to be done under its banner.


The first sign we had was the Government’s imposition of a cap on the amount by which town or parish councils can raise their council tax. In other words, even if people locally decide they want to spend more money on their services, there is a limit to how far they can go down that road. Localism, but only as far as they allow it.


The next sign was in the way the community budgeting process was to be delivered. At first it seemed brilliant that ONE Haverhill was in place to do the job. However, that body has chosen not to make itself directly accountable to the community it purports to budget for, by having its meetings in private. Localism, but the way they want to deliver it.


More recently we have seen further signs of the unseen controlling hands which are reducing the Localism idea to just another cosmetic exercise.


Haverhill people have clearly demonstrated they want the High Street pedestrianised. One might think that was just the sort of local decision which could be implemented locally which Localism was all about.


There was a slight catch, in that trying to force it through might cost Suffolk’s council tax payers a bit of money in public inquiry costs - £50,000, was mooted, a drop in the county ocean, but a significant sum nevertheless.


Alright, we said, how about if someone else would foot that bill (ie us)? Local people paying for what they had decided locally that they wanted. No, said the county. Localism, but only on their terms.


In parallel with that we have the example of the Burton Centre. Having axed youth provision as one of its cuts, and wanting to hive off its libraries, Suffolk County Council discovered it had now made the Burton Centre ‘under-used’, so it looked for someone else to take it over.


Haverhill Town Council bid to do so as a base to re-instate some of the axed youth services. Local people deciding to take on local problems and find local solutions. The bid failed.


The fact that St Nicholas Hospice is the successful bidder has rather clouded the issue, because everyone has to be in favour of the hospice having a base in Haverhill, so questioning whether it needs to be in that particular building seems churlish.


But when you look at the reasons for the decision, the dark side of this story comes into focus. The bid failed on the grounds that there was not enough local support. The county had adjudged this by consulting the three local councillors – hardly the sort of broad consultation even they can claim was realistic.


It also failed on the grounds that it was not financially sustainable, which was interpreted to mean that it needed public money – ie our council tax. The hospice bid needs half a million of Government money, which apparently doesn’t count. Localism, but we can’t even pay for it ourselves if it doesn’t suit them.


This is profoundly undemocratic, and has ripped the fig-leaf of Localism to shreds and shown it for what it now is – political control and manipulation from the centre.


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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