Home Page Scrutiny is all very well, but grasp all the facts first 28/03/14

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

It is really beginning to look as if Haverhill Town Council will have to find a bigger room for its meetings. Attendance has rocketed in recent months and if it had not been the police officers clogging the doorway this week one might have had some questions about emergency exits.


What a pity the old council chamber at Lower Downs Slade was finally gutted and turned into offices in the 1990s! It was an impressive and effective debating chamber but, between when the old Haverhill Urban District Council was ended under local government re-organisation in 1974 and when Haverhill Town Council was started up in 1989, it was hardly used at all.


It sat there, a silent mausoleum for the town’s representation, for 15 years, except for the odd reception or public inquiry – and how useful would it have been recently for the inquiry into Vision 2031, instead of an echoing studio in the sports centre, invaded by extraneous zumba noise!


When the town council started, as a result of a Boundary Commission inquiry, it brought the chamber back to life, with its grand dais for the mayor and its quadrant tables for the members, dividing along party lines – and its balcony for the public to look down on events.


Then the town council took over Bevan House and met in the tiny main room there until it finally moved into the arts centre. In those days few, if any, members of the public attended.


That remained the case, except when some controversial planning application came up, until quite recently. But now, the chairs put out for the public are filled to overflowing by residents keen to scrutinise every jot and tittle of council accounts and proceedings.


The public forum, introduced many years ago and often not taken advantage of at all, is now a full half-hour and maybe more of varied questioning.


It would be more productive if the members of the public who have surprisingly taken such a sudden interest in local politics had rather more background knowledge of what was being discussed - but that could also be said of many of the council members.


We had a prime example this week over the apparently simple and innocent issue of Christmas Lights. Members were asked by the locum clerk, filling in until the new one takes over in June, about renegotiating the contract for providing the town’s seasonal illuminations, which have been much praised in recent years.


The council had already agreed to hack away half the cost of the lights and accept a more basic provision, as part of its cost-saving in the wake of the hoo-hah over cash which St Edmundsbury Borough Council is no longer passing on to Haverhill.


That was all straightforward enough, but there remained the question of whether or not to continue last year’s very successful children’s competition to design lights, at a cost of £3,000.


It turned out to be a tight vote, across party lines, with the mayor having to use his casting vote one way or the other, and he decided to continue the competition. Those who voted against – and many members of the ‘scrutinising’ public – saw this as yet another example of the council wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.


If, however, you remember the background history of the whole Christmas Lights saga, there is a good case to be made that this £3,000 is actually the only part of the council’s expenditure on them which can actually be justified.


Christmas Lights never used to be paid for by the town council. They were indirectly part-funded from the borough council by grant to the town’s Chamber of Commerce, who raised the rest of the cost during the year.


The fact that we had any lights at all was down to the town’s business community who, in the end, are assumed to be the main beneficiaries, because festive illumination is supposed to bring in shoppers.


In an era where publicly-funded provisions have been migrated almost wholesale to the private sector, it is strange that this particular item has gone the other way. The private sector now pays nothing at all towards the lights – it all comes out of our pockets directly via the town council, since the borough stopped paying for it altogether, in common with almost everything else in Haverhill (to be fair to them, they stopped paying in Bury as well, but local businesses have picked up the tab in the form of the Bury Business Improvement District).


So you could quite reasonably argue that whether or not we have Christmas Lights, and what standard they should achieve, should be entirely down to the town’s business sector. After all, we are always being told what a go-ahead, forward-looking place Haverhill is for businesses, exporting all over the world.


Lights are nice enough, and they add a bit of prestige to the town if they are good, but are they really necessary to us as residents? Can’t we go and enjoy some elsewhere if we are that bothered? After all, they don’t cost anything to look at.


However, encouraging children to take part in a design competition where they can follow through their efforts right to the point of seeing them ‘in lights’ literally, is a true piece of community work which is the correct purlieu of the town council, as I understand its raison d’etre.


Maybe a business could be persuaded to sponsor the competition eventually but, to get it started, it seems perfectly reasonable that the town council should sponsor it for the first year or two.


Before taking on the voluntary role of council scrutineers, members of the public would do well to ensure they have a complete grasp of all the background facts of each budget head which they wish to question – if they have the spare time for such an onerous task.

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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