Hart of the Matter
At this time 25 years ago we were preparing for the first election of a specifically Haverhill council, based in the town, for nearly 20 years – two decades of almost complete disenfranchisement, during which time the town was routinely ignored and shabbily treated.
During that time also, the unfortunate reputation which had grown up in the 1960s – not without justification in some ways, as in many other British towns and cities – was allowed to simmer and fester. It was convenient for Haverhill to become the scapegoat and the sump for all St Edmundsbury’s and Suffolk’s ills.
While the old urban district council was in place, the mistakes which had occurred during the original town expansion agreement were being acknowledged and efforts being made to alleviate their effect.
If you look over the town today from the top of Wratting Road you will see one of those still in action, particularly at this time of the year. A huge number of little trees were planted throughout the dense overspill developments. Now they provide a sylvan setting for much of the town.
It has even been claimed that Haverhill has more trees per head of population than any other town, although how one could substantiate or disprove that I have no idea.
At the time, no doubt, people thought this was a pathetic, even bonkers, idea and a complete waste of public money (it wasn’t council tax in those days). In the BBC 1968 Man Alive documentary, you can see Cllr Horace Eves pointing out the tree-planting as one way the UDC was trying to improve things.
It’s a patronising interview by the BBC reporter whose scepticism is plain to hear, as he follows through the clear intention of the film to create a narrative of how expansion has been a complete failure and how the town had been poorly represented by a mixture of ignorant locals and careless employers.
Cllr Eves had been a railway worker and was interviewed, ironically, on the disused platform of Haverhill station, a year after the railway closed. The attempt was to present him as an example of a working man - and a Socialist - completely out of his depth, and burbling on about trees.
Well, it turns out, of course, that he and his colleagues were on the right track, and way ahead of the game. The long-term view has proved to be fully justified, particularly in the context of the short-term views which subsequently prevailed within St Edmundsbury after it was created to replace the UDC in 1974.
Cllr Eves and many of his colleagues were, of course, elected to St Edmundsbury, but massively outnumbered by the Bury and rural Conservative members. A political situation evolved which has hardly changed to this day, where Haverhill elects a mix of Labour councillors who make a bit of noise but struggle to have any effect at all, and Tory ones who join in the ruling group and find themselves outgunned there, remain mostly silent about it, get browned off and give up.
That things have improved at St Edmundsbury at all can mostly be dated from around 25 years ago when the town council came into existence. That, in itself, is probably worth celebrating, although no one could argue the improvement has been fundamental enough. Sometimes, even now, I get a great wave of déjà vu as the borough behaves exactly as I remember in the 1970s and 80s.
Nevertheless, the advent of the town council was definitely A Good Thing for Haverhill. But, just as Cllr Eves’ trees can only be fully appreciated decades later, a lot of what the town council has done is only feeding gently through at present and will probably not come to fruition for another decade or two.
It is about the culture of the town in providing services for itself which others are no longer willing to provide. Of course, if you belong to the isolationist school of thought that sees no reason why a community should spend money on any sort of services, and wants to leave that all to the individual and the private sector, you won’t like that.
You’ll probably see them rather as the BBC reporter saw Cllr Eves – bumbling liberal thinkers (and that includes the Tories), out of their depth and wasting public money (and now it’s council taxpayers – OUR money!). Well, we shall see.
Various criticisms of the kind have been levelled at the town council over the last 25 years – wasting money on pensioners’ outings, on market square entertainment for families, on fireworks, on youth projects, on community support groups and so on. And then wasting much more significant sums by taking on the arts centre (as if anyone needs that in crummy Haverhill!).
Now it’s the proposed youth hub at the old magistrates’ court – hundreds of thousands of pounds set aside for that. Meanwhile, we are told, councillors don’t turn up for meetings (shock horror – as if they ever did, here or anywhere else for that matter), they pick up a fat salary in the form of ‘expenses’ (none actually get paid anything they haven’t incurred) and, in the latest scurrilous imaginings from some febrile brains which are surgically attached to social media keyboards, they hide the truth about council finances.
On behalf of all the journalists who have worked in Haverhill over the past 25 years (and that’s the best part of a tidy few), I can safely say we all resent that. Don’t these people think we look for that sort of thing? A story like that, if you could stand it up, can make your career. Every trainee journalist who ever set foot in the town has no doubt yearned to discover some councillor or other is pocketing public money.
Sadly, we actually get properly trained to be able to examine public finances, and we have to deal in the facts we find. Next elections we’ll get a new crop of councillors. Maybe they will prove more venal than their predecessors, but I doubt it.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.