Home Page Learn the lesson of the elms and don't believe all they tell you 21/06/13

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Hart of the Matter

The election of new councillors, whether you have any sympathy with their party or not, certainly seems to have stimulated political debate in Haverhill Ė about transport links, about the Vision 2031 documents and about the high street.


Cllr Tony Brown, one of our new representatives, has started stirring things up at county hall and at St Edmundsbury, by asking questions. This is not an uncommon way to begin. The test will be to see how long new councillors can keep up the attitude of Ďnew broomsí before they get subsumed into the system.


Of course, they will deny strenuously that it will never happen to them Ė everyone does at first. But they do have an advantage shared by none of their predecessors Ė they are not tied to one of the old big three parties, but neither are they independents.


This means they donít have to tow any party line, but they do have the backing of other people and of a party system across the country. Again, you may not like that party system Ė it appears to include some views which arenít exactly inclusive Ė but when it comes to local politics, these sort of things are unimportant.


Some of the main parties have rather shot themselves in the foot on this issue by claiming on one hand that UKIP councillors stand for unpleasant attitudes on national issues and then that these issues are irrelevant to local politics.


Either may or may not be true, but what it leaves us with is Ďloose cannonsí in council terms, and that is not a bad thing at all, as long as they turn their fire in the right direction.


The greatest disappointment about the Haverhill Representative Alliance, which gained huge popularity for a short time in the town a decade ago, was that it turned its fire against the goodies and not the baddies.


Had it succeeded in rocking the distant St Edmundsbury or Suffolk boats in the way that it nearly sank our own town council, made up of Haverhill-thinking people, we might really have got somewhere.


So, whither should the fire of these latter-day crusaders be directed? Hopefully they are beginning to discover the answer to that. We saw this week that it turns out the reason we donít have the Real Time Passenger Information boards we were promised at Haverhill bus station, is that they were axed from the budget three years ago and no one told us.


This will almost certainly turn out to have been a decision made by officers and rubber-stamped by a committee containing no Haverhill councillors, who probably didnít even read all the paperwork.


Officers make these sorts of decisions all the time, and unless councillors are very canny or have a huge amount of time to spare to read every single document related to the councilís activities, they miss them.


You may remember how Sir Humphrey would put any really important document which the Minister was supposed to see but which he did not want him to see, at the bottom of his fifth red box of the evening, in the expectation he would never have the stamina to get to it, but could not deny it had been passed to him.


That is one tactic. Another is to blind the councillors with science, either by couching documents in a language which no ordinary person can understand, or by adducing all sorts of supposedly expert evidence to support a policy decision.


Cllr Brown has already picked up on the effects of one of these issues. Six years ago, St Edmundsbury Borough Council announced its grand scheme to provide a cinema for Haverhill. The council spent £10.5million to build the cinema complex for Cineworld, who are now their tenants. I think the lease was 25 years, but I donít know and it may have been renegotiated since anyway.


This was, apparently, because a cinema was top of the wish list of young people in Haverhill. Iím sure there were good intentions behind the deal, and Haverhill has benefited by gaining more eateries and a cinema, although how well the latter is used I donít know. Whenever I go there itís like the Marie Celeste, but perhaps my sort of films are not the most marketable around here.


Cineworld, I have heard, stipulated a main road frontage, which is why the complex does not integrate with the town centre. Even some councillors and council officers who proudly announced the plan now privately admit it wasnít the ideal location.


They stuffed it in the green space which used to front the sports centre and, to be honest, it looks quite nice better than I had imagined from the plans.


But then some tree experts started to kick up about a danger to the elm trees which front the sports centre. Years ago no one would have minded, but almost all the elm trees in Britain were wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease, and they are now very rare.


Haverhillís survived by being in the middle of town and cut off from the spread of the bug. I was employed at another news outlet in those days and we started a petition on our website to save the elm trees, achieving loads of signatures.


But council officers assured everyone that there was no possible danger to them. And they pollarded them violently as well, saying it was good for them. As far as I can tell three of them are now dead or dying and a couple of others donít look very good.


So my message to Cllr Brown and all other new councillors is: Donít just take what they tell you at face value. There are other agendas. And that goes for Vision 2031 as well.

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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