Hart of the Matter
Whether or not you agree with the things which Suffolk County Council’s chief executive had to say on her visit to Haverhill this week, you have to give her credit for actually saying them.
Council officers are generally cautious to a degree and commentators like me have to ferret hard to find anything revealing, controversial or even interesting in their pontifications.
That wasn’t the case with Deborah Cadman’s chat to business and community leaders. In fact, it is difficult to know where to begin in listing the revelatory things she said.
There was the first admission that I can remember from anyone senior in local government that a railway link to Cambridge would be the best solution to Haverhill’s infrastructure requirements.
It was followed by the statement that it would never happen – something always tacked on to any mention of the railway in such circles – but then a qualification of ‘not in the next ten years’. That is another first – the shortest period ever mentioned. Normally it’s 50, or at least 30.
Ten would take us to 2023, so one might ask, if that is the chief executive of Suffolk’s view, why it is not at least mentioned in Vision 2031, which is supposed to govern our future a good bit further down the line (no pun intended).
She mentioned the county have spoken about the idea with rail chiefs and Government, without any success because they consider it unviable. That goes against the findings of an independent viability study, but let that pass.
The fact that they are talking about it at all, must presumably be news to St Edmundsbury, who have put together Vision 2031 without a mention of it despite the comments of the public who advocate the idea.
This is only one example of the malaise which seems to have overtaken our local authorities with regard to Haverhill. Curiously it surrounds a word which came up more than once during Deborah Cadman’s talk – Aspiration.
She confessed to being astonished by the lack of aspiration among Suffolk school students and, reading between the lines, one might suspect she thinks this is one of the reasons for the county’s poor educational performance results recently.
Haverhill is not doing too badly compared with the rest of the county and that may reflect a certain raising of aspirations of young people here. They probably still have a way to go, but it is encouraging.
One member of her audience complained that Haverhill youngsters still consider the town is a dump and have no pride in it. Ms Cadman replied that she came up against that sort of comment when she arrived as chief executive of St Edmundsbury eight years ago, and that was why the process was set in motion which created the CB9 logo.
Among the audience was Haverhill’s town clerk, Will Austin, no doubt delighted to hear Ms Cadman praise the town council’s work in raising the profile of the town, and he also spoke about aspiration.
The aspirations of the community budgeting programme being developed by ONE Haverhill are far too low, he claimed.
This needs putting into context. As the county and borough councils have divested themselves of more and more responsibilities and assets, so they look to the localism agenda to fill the gap – partnership working and this new idea of community budgeting, where all the resources come to a single body within a community to be spent as that community wants.
This is the famous national pilot scheme, of which Haverhill is one of the 12 pioneers. The trouble is that the county and borough have foregone their power by divesting themselves of these responsibilities, so they can’t actually affect much any more.
Ms Cadman said people who write to her think she can do anything and she can’t. That is a legacy of the days when a county chief executive had power over a lot of areas – before academies, before bus deregulation, before they handed over their libraries and so on.
The same is true of St Edmundsbury, which no longer has council houses or responsibility for Haverhill’s road system and numerous other things.
Ms Cadman went on to say it was all very well having a wish list, but you shouldn’t put things on it that can’t be funded. This was where her argument collapsed, because that is what a wish-list is. A list of things that can be funded should be a series of proposals because they ought to be doing them anyway.
A wish-list is a list of things which, in an ideal world, we would like but which, at the moment, we can’t see a way of funding. It is put together in the hope that a way may be found. It may be unlikely, but not as unlikely as getting funding for something which isn’t even on a wish-list at all.
What Mr Austin was saying is that the aspirations need to be much greater. And he’s right. Everything should be on there – full-scale youth provision, a museum, major retail improvements, a hospital, even the railway – if they would be for the good of the town.
The trouble is that politicians only like to highlight things they think they can achieve, otherwise they look as if they’ve failed to deliver all the time. And in the current climate these things are getting smaller and fewer every year.
Let’s have a bit more honesty about what we want and how far we are succeeding or failing. We all understand it can’t be delivered in five minutes. Ms Cadman admitted that, having grabbed the chance for the cinema development – in her time at St Edmundsbury – the council had not then succeeded in maximising its potential by linking it with the town centre. Okay, fine, that’s an honest assessment. We know where we are and what we are trying to achieve next. Of course, she’s not a politician....