Hart of the Matter
The first thing to say about Haverhill Town Council’s 25th anniversary celebration, and the town meeting that preceded it, is that rarely in that quarter of a century has there been such a well-attended annual meeting and rarely has the public taken as much detailed interest in the council’s affairs as at present, which has to be a good thing.
Of course, there was a lot of rubbish spouted at the meeting, mostly the result of ignorance rather than malice, I suspect, and there were the usual percentage of barmy suggestions which one gets when any sizeable numbers of the public are gathered together in one room.
But the hottest issue was the proposed ‘youth hub’ (whatever that means), which is one of the priorities of the Neighbourhood Community Budget (whatever that is), to be delivered by ONE Haverhill (whatever that is).
Already one can see how the misunderstandings which dominated much of this debate on Tuesday night had come about. Local government is not what it was.
Ever since local government spending has been seriously, indeed almost entirely, capped by central government, thanks to Margaret Thatcher and her successors of all political persuasions, people who work for the community at local level – councillors, officers and volunteer agencies – have had to work out new ways of financing everything, or else just do without.
Haverhill has never been a ‘do without’ town. It has always protested vehemently about the facilities and services it doesn’t have. But more recently, and particularly since the growth in confidence of the town council, instead of just whingeing ineffectively, it has started to try to put together other ways of achieving what it needs by its own efforts.
Now, some people think the axing of youth services by Suffolk County Council three years ago was perfectly justified. They think the youth club was a waste of time and is not missed and see no reason why they should be taxed to replace it.
However, a very wide-ranging independent and professional survey carried out on behalf of ONE Haverhill did actually establish that a large majority of townspeople put youth services at the top of their priority list of things Haverhill needed. So the opponents of the concept as a whole will just have to face up to the fact that they are in a minority. That’s democracy.
But it’s a whole extra leap to go from being in favour of the idea generally to spending wads and wads of cash on it. Most of Haverhill’s establishment has taken that leap, but it has not carried a significant proportion of the public with it, and that is because of the complex negotiations which now have to take place to achieve anything by the new method, called ‘partnership working’.
This is how local authorities, which are now heavily constrained financially, can still achieve new things, and attract money from other sources. It is no longer a matter of identifying need and deciding whether or not to provide for it. It is about trying to get lots of different authorities and agencies to work together to find the cheapest, most effective and (most important) practical way of achieving that provision. So now there is a long, long lead-up to any project even reaching the stage of a firm proposal.
No one is going to do all that work if they don’t have some sense that at the end of it all the cash will be available for the right project, from various sources – and not just cash. It could be resources, buildings, land, manpower, political will, anything.
If you don’t have that initial indication, you could well be completely wasting your time in complex negotiations. And that, in a nutshell, is why Haverhill town council has set aside £200,000 towards a youth hub, which was initially just a vague idea and not a concrete proposal.
I’m guessing it’s a lot more concrete now, but ONE Haverhill is not letting on. I’ve wasted enough words in the past on how ONE Haverhill is wrong not to meet in public. Tuesday night just showed again why, and one wonders how much longer this secrecy will be sustainable.
It’s not just that the board meetings are behind closed doors. When ONE Haverhill was set up, it committed to a six-monthly public forum. After the first one, these have never been held.
It was a bit much to blame the business sector alone as someone did on Tuesday night. I suspect it’s the volunteer agencies and the council officers as well who don’t fancy meeting in public. Whatever it is, at the annual town meeting we saw the results of this policy in action – rumour, speculation, ignorance and misunderstanding running riot.
But, underneath it all, and not very well (or very politely) expressed, was a very real concern, about the chicken and the egg. It is all very well to insist that no money has yet been spent – and very little has. It is all very well for former town clerk Gordon Mussett to explain, quite rightly and succinctly, that the opportunity for public debate comes when the decision whether or not to spend it is being made.
In reality, can anyone honestly see the situation coming about where ONE Haverhill finally brings forward a worked-up proposal, which is dependent on the funding partners (because ONE Haverhill has no money of its own), and one of them – for instance Haverhill Town Council – turns round and says: ‘No. We’ve decided not to fund it after all’?
It’s not going to happen, so the decision is pretty much made. And the reason it is made is because, we have to hope and believe, ONE Haverhill, being a collection of experts from all areas of business and government – backed, remember, by central Government as a national flagship pilot - who know a lot more about all this than we do, will not bring forward a proposal unless it meets all the most stringent tests which any of us could apply to it, and more.
If you believe that, then the political system which has replaced direct council spending with partnership working can continue to function – just.
If you don’t, it won’t. It will be like taking your TV apart to examine every single infinitessimal working part each time before you switch it on. You’ll never see anything.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.