Home Page Meeting showed tactics for dealing with wild animals 15/03/13

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

It seems that the fame of Monday night’s meeting about Haverhill High Street has spread far and wide, with many expressing surprise, disappointment or disgust at either the process or the outcome - or both.


I am sorry to say, as a long-time observer of such confrontations in Haverhill, that there was not very much that was surprising about any of it.


The setting was traditional – a school hall. In the past such meetings have taken place in community centres or schools, or the town hall. The main protagonists were the same – distant councillors and their officers, and the residents of the town, some 70-odd, which is a good turnout for Haverhill.


The subject of the action was similar – a local authority or agency pushing through a controversial policy comes along to justify it before a vociferous public, in what has been billed as a decisive battle.


And the result was much the same – nothing new said, nothing new decided and the public just as dissatisfied as they were beforehand.


One could go on and on about this déjŕ-vu, and no doubt people will. But to me the most depressing element in the whole shambolic charade was the process, because it showed that we have made no progress at all in forty years.


The battle lines on Monday night were no different from what they would have been any time since local government re-organisation in 1974. Since then, major decisions about Haverhill have been made by people from far away who have shown, if they could be persuaded to appear in the town at all, an utter disregard for its people.


I don’t mean that they have not done what the public asked – that happens, and we have to put up with it. We are never going to get everything we want or prevent everything we see as detrimental to Haverhill being done.


I point instead at the attitude, which does not seem to see dialogue as being a valid approach to the process. Consultation, by questionnaire and public exhibition, or, as so often nowadays, online, is one thing. Dialogue is another.


In order to engage in dialogue the local authority has to accept that the other side is of equal value and therefore can be spoken to as an equal. For forty years, councillors, council officers or agency managers have come to Haverhill from Bury or Ipswich with a very different agenda.


Townspeople are led to believe they are coming here to discuss, to argue, to justify and to listen, as if they were dealing other sentient human beings.


In fact, they come here rather as the lion-tamers of yesteryear visited a zoo, with a strategy all planned out as to how to stop the animals getting at them.


Most of the time the animals are in the zoo and you don’t have to get any nearer to them than stuffing something through the bars for them to eat. But there are times when you have to go in to clean them, to treat them or to capture them for transport elsewhere.


On these occasions, for safety, the rules are as follows: Always keep something, or someone, between you and them; Never make eye-contact; Always impress them that you are the dominant creature and they the subservient; Take a sweet of some kind to chuck down at them to begin with and keep them quiet; Keep a tranquiliser gun at the ready by which you can delay the process and come back another day.


Dear old Cllr MacGregor went through the whole gamut of these predictable tactics, as so many of his predecessors have done, from St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s leader of the 1970s John Knight, via MP Tim Yeo during the time he was unfortunate enough to have Haverhill in his constituency, to St Edmundsbury’s leisure department in the battle over the arts centre and, most recently, poor little mincemeat Martin Royal from NHS Suffolk about the Crown Health Centre.


He had his officers to do the talking and keep between him and the animals; he maintained the superior arrogance which was straight out of the handbook of those predecessors, looking over people’s heads rather than in their eyes; he talked down to them and when they began to get uppity he told his sidekick to end the meeting; he threw down the titbit of the revival of the Bury-Stansted bus (yippee); and he told us there would be another meeting involving all stakeholders after the election.


Sadly for him, the officers were ill-prepared and sounded out-of-touch; arrogance annoys Haverhill people more than any other single attribute; being superior was a disaster when it soon became plain the audience knew more about the subject than he did; no one was interested in the bus (okay with it but not that impressed); and we all know the next meeting will be engineered to be during the day when none of this hostile audience will be able to be there.


Two things particularly disappointed me. I’m not certain whether I favour pedestrianisation or not, but I like to see both sides properly represented, and the anti-party either didn’t turn up or hid beneath MacGregor’s coat-tails, which did them no justice at all.


The other disappointment was even more fundamental. All through this debate we have never managed to get the county council and the police in the same room. At one meeting the county would say the police have to enforce the regulations and at another the police would say the county should block off the street.


Here we had Cllr MacGregor and the police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore in the same room, and no one faced them up with each other. If anyone can put pressure on MacGregor, it is Passmore and he was allowed to slip under the radar until MacGregor had walked out, while MacGregor was allowed to put his case without any reference to Passmore.

And I’d take a little bet they had worked that out between them, because MacGregor went up to Passmore (incognito in the audience) on his way out. So perhaps we should add a new tactic: take a little friend into the cage with you disguised as a tree.

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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