Home Page Now it really is our arts centre as we're the only ones paying for it 17/02/12

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

I suppose it was always going to be unlikely that we Haverhill residents would be getting back any of the extra money we had to hand over in last year’s council tax to ensure the future of the arts centre.


At the time, if you remember, there were pledges that, if the money turned out not to be needed, it would either be returned to council-tax payers or used for other important projects within the town – and one or two had been pencilled in as possible schemes.


But that sort of Utopian outcome was never going to happen because the initial argument was such a chicken-and-egg one that we could never win.


If you remember, St Edmundsbury councillors refused to give any sort of undertaking that they would continue to grant fund the arts centre at all – and in the current economic climate you may think that was hardly surprising.


The only alternative was for Haverhill Town Council to find the shortfall, which it could only do by raising its council tax precept appreciably. From this year onward, any such rise will be subject to a local referendum if enough people object to it, and I think we know there are some around who will continue to object to the arts centre altogether.


So the town council faced an impossible dilemma, while the borough wriggled out of any responsibility quite neatly.


If the town council had called the borough’s bluff and not raised council tax, it would have taken some political courage for the borough to axe the grant completely, but they might have done it and then we would have had no arts centre.


As it is, we have had to fork out and now the borough can axe the grant with impunity, saying it isn’t needed any more because the town council has decided to fund the building – by which it means Haverhill council tax payers are funding it.


I hope residents of Clare, Hundon, Kedington and all villages in between, who use the building so often, now appreciate they are not paying a penny towards it any more and it’s just us in Haverhill that are providing this wonderful facility for their benefit.


We are told there will now be a new £50,000 grant pot available in Haverhill, administered by One Haverhill, apparently, once it has found its feet. Maybe the arts centre can get some money from that so at least the rest of the borough is paying something.


The grant termination marks the end of a long saga, and one which has exemplified St Edmundsbury’s version of the Barnett Formula debate about how much should be spent on different geographical areas of the borough.


We have all paid, via both St Edmundsbury and Suffolk County Council, for the Theatre Royal, which we were told was the borough’s flagship to which we must all contribute, even though, in Haverhill, we are far more likely to travel to Cambridge for live music or theatre.


Now, of course, we have contributed in a variety of ways, towards the £16million cost of the apex (I hate the insistence on not having capital letters – so pointlessly ‘trendy’) in Bury St Edmunds, a fantastic venue, but one which Haverhill people are unlikely to use in huge numbers because of where it is.


The cost of that would have kept Haverhill Arts Centre going for 100 years. The quid pro quo, if there is one, was the cinema, which cost the borough £10million to build for Cineworld. The company didn’t have to pay anything for the equivalent facility in Bury, because it was a commercial proposition.


The Haverhill one, the operator decided, was not a commercial proposition, unless the borough forked out for the building. Time will tell who was right. Apparently the borough has tied Cineworld to a 25-year contract to operate it. Again, time will tell. But the thought process of cinema in Haverhill equals live venue in Bury is transparent enough.


St Edmundsbury has never valued Haverhill Arts Centre as it should have done, and consistently failed to recognise its potential. When it had control of the building it mismanaged it signally and almost ran it down the drain, and since it has handed control over it has never supported it marketed it in Bury in the way it should have done.


People from Cambridgeshire and Essex are now more likely to attend events there than people from Bury, where our own borough council has a huge capability of promoting one of Haverhill’s finest features.


In the end, the axing of the grant will mean, I am sure, that some projects in Haverhill will go by the board, although St Edmundsbury will no doubt say that double-funding the building was not an option.


How much better, then, if they had come clean from the beginning, and said to Haverhill Town Council: "Sorry, but from next year this level of grant is just not going to be possible. We’re giving you a year’s notice to find some other funding, and then we can discuss a lower level of grant and come to an agreement before we both set our budgets for next year.”


That would have been real partnership working – the sort that everyone can trust.


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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