Hart of the Matter
After perceiving some joined-up thinking at work within Suffolk County Council last week, in using the site of the soon-to-be-redundant Chalkstone Middle School for a replacement for Place Court care home, this week has given us more opportunities for seeing agencies get together to work for the benefit of Haverhill.
Haverhill Partnership is a loose forum made up of an almost infinitely wide range of agencies, authorities and groups who work within the town – so wide, in fact that you can’t get all the representatives around quite a large set of tables.
King Arthur may have had 140 knights sitting at his Round Table, but it doesn’t say that they were able to hear what one another said.
Much of what the partnership stands for is not only very praiseworthy, but long overdue. If all these agencies had been pulled together in the same way 40 years ago, when town expansion was beginning to falter, we might not have some of the anomalies which bedevil the town now.
Apart from anything, the partnership shows what can be achieved when people talk to one another. Information spreads outwards and unlooked-for benefits accrue as opportunities suddenly present themselves.
However, the partnership has, quite rightly, identified this as a time when it needs to reconsider what it does and how it does it.
So, having highlighted its good points, here are a few thoughts about where it fails. These are failings which have been endemic in Haverhill’s recent history - and that shows, I think, that the partnership is in tune with the town, which makes for a good starting point.
Like most people, I am an outsider to the workings of local government and local service providers, and as such it may be that what seems simple to people like me is very complex in reality, in which case all I can say is that it shouldn’t be.
I believe the partnership acknowledges that it does not have enough input from local businesses. It is stacked – almost overwhelmed – with representatives from local government at town, borough and county level, and there is good representation from the voluntary sector.
But longish meetings during the day are not convenient for businesses. Council officers seem to be able to take time out to attend endless meetings without it affecting their schedules – perhaps it even becomes part of their schedules and their work. But business people who take out a chunk of time from the working day invariably have to make it up somewhere, in the evenings or weekends, so it is not popular.
Something needs to be done to address this. If the partnership meetings resulted in instant and favourable action, it might be different, but this very large group can be seen as a talking shop by those who are used to small, targeted meetings.
However, I think there is an even more glaringly obvious absence from the partnership, and one which runs right through Haverhill’s challenges like the name in a stick of rock.
There is no representation at all from Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, Braintree District Council or Essex County Council.
Haverhill continues to exist in a little bubble which economic pressure is pushing out of the Suffolk balloon. Councillors and officers will say these other authorities have no responsibility for Haverhill, so why should they attend, and why should we want them there?
And, of course, that is a view which suits those who have direct responsibility for Haverhill. But to those of us looking from the outside, it is just plain barmy.
North-East Haverhill, as the latest proposed swathe of development (post-2021) is currently called, will only be sustainable if a north-east bypass is built. This will have to go around Haverhill Golf Course, all of which is in Essex.
And the town is spreading further and further in a north-easterly direction because that is the only direction over which the local authority planners have any control. Nobody can tell me that if Haverhill had been in the middle of a single county and district it would have continued to grow in this lop-sided, lozenge shape.
It goes against all policies of sustainability, of environment and of economy. But you can’t question it because there is this invisible wall to the west and south which only local authorities can see.
And what is Haverhill’s biggest single piece of infrastructure, its lifeline? The A1307. And what, in a Utopian world, does Haverhill need the most? A railway. And where are these, both the reality and the fantasy? In Cambridgeshire.
I’m not saying that much of the partnership’s more parochial business would have any relevance to these neighbouring authorities. But to the simple outsider, any joined-up thinking achieved at these grass-roots levels is blown out of the water when there is such a disjointed overview in place.