Hart of the Matter
Just over a year ago, at last year’s Annual Town Meeting,
one of the most controversial issues to be raised was about whether or not the
meetings of ONE Haverhill should be open to the public.
I say controversial, but there wasn’t much controversy on the
night – everyone agreed the meetings should be open to the public, and the then
town mayor, who was fielding the issues raised by the public, intimated he
agreed but said it was out of his hands or those of the town council as a whole.
It lies within the board of ONE Haverhill to decide whether
or not to open its meetings to the public, and I remember writing then that
they would ignore this public pressure at their peril.
But ignore it they did, a while later, when they had a vote
which went in favour of keeping their doors firmly closed to both press and public
and relying on disseminating information about their deliberations through the
laconic minutes published on their website.
Their only concession to the concerns raised was to finally
hold a public forum in the autumn, something which they had originally agreed
to do every six months, but had neglected for the best part of three years.
We are told that the problem with opening their meetings to
the public is that there are officers and representatives of business and other
organisations present who are not used to having their debates scrutinised.
These faceless and anonymous people are blamed for the
log-jam which resurfaced again at last week’s town council meeting and led to
one of the newly-elected UKIP group calling for ONE Haverhill to be disbanded –
or at least for the town council to pull out of it.
I suppose this was hardly surprising because ONE Haverhill
has certain things in common with the European Union in that many people don’t
like it much but are scared that we are probably better off in under any
circumstances, than out, claiming you can only change it from within.
There are many curious factors in this debate. One of them
is that you can never find anyone who is prepared to admit to having voted
against opening the meetings to the public.
Every time I have heard the issue aired in any public forum,
every person present who is a member of the ONE Haverhill board claims to be in
favour of open meetings and to have voted against secrecy.
It isn’t entirely clear exactly how many people attend ONE
Haverhill board meetings, but if they are enough to outvote all the people I
have heard declare for open meetings, it must be a large and rather unwieldy
But then, if you talk to members privately, you find that
they claim that some of the people who declare openly for openness vote in
secret for secrecy. I don’t know if that’s true, or whether in saying that they
are merely hiding their own duplicity.
The impasse goes on, though, and now we await the next
annual vote by the ONE Haverhill board to see if anyone has changed sides. If they
haven’t, then in the autumn when ONE Haverhill’s constitution comes before the
town council for debate, we might see an almost unthinkable alignment of UKIP
and Labour in favour of withdrawing – only might, I emphasise, because it does
seem pretty unlikely. But it would be enough.
The solution seems to be me to be quite simple. The vote on
whether the press and public should be admitted to board meetings should be
held, among board members, at a public forum – in public.
There would be no danger of anyone being put on the spot
about their particular area of responsibility within the partnership, or their
representation of their organisation, because no other items of purely board business
would be discussed.
But we would see where people stand, and if the vote was
still in favour of keeping the doors closed there might be a bit more respect
for that decision because members have come out and declared for it in public.
Nobody would have unfair pressure put on them within the
scope of their responsibility. Of course, I imagine the audience in the public
forum would have a fairly strong opinion, but if cogent arguments are put
forward they might at least withhold their judgements.
If there are not cogent arguments enough to persuade even
one member of the public of the need for secrecy, then it is quite clear the
meetings should be open, and it seems to me that the public pressure at that
point would be quite legitimate.
There is always the danger, of course, that if the vote went
in favour of public meetings, some members of the ONE Haverhill partnership
would withdraw. But now there is the danger that if the meetings remain private
at least one member – the town council – might withdraw.
The town council is the vehicle through which ONE Haverhill
was first delivered, and it would seem extraordinary if people from far and
wide were to come together in Haverhill to debate their input into purely
Haverhill matters, but that the town’s own representatives were no longer part
of the scene.
Certainly the Government, in the person of Mr Pickles and
his department, who have lauded the Haverhill pioneer project to the skies,
would find it bizarre. It hardly fits in with the Localism agenda which they
used to have.
There would be no further accolades for those in ONE
Haverhill who have, until now, been anointed as priests to disseminate the
religion across the country - not that that would be of any significance to those
who are giving their time purely for the benefit of the community.
I think ONE Haverhill is an innovative and praiseworthy
concept, which has delivered some outstanding successes for Haverhill and it
would be a tragedy if it were undermined, but if it looked last year as if we
were at a crossroads on this issue, we are now heading point blank for a
juggernaut going the other way. The board has to recapture public confidence