Hart of the Matter
Returning from my annual tramping of the Lake District heights this week I found myself plunged into a most exciting week for those who take a keen interest in the way Haverhill is governed and its services provided.
Not only had there been a dramatic vote on the ONE Haverhill board to continue to hold its deliberations in secret, but this had precipitated the resignation of two senior members.
Barely had I had time to digest this explosive development than Haverhill Town Council issued ONE Haverhill with an ultimatum – meet in public or we pull out altogether and take our cash with us.
Later in the week we were told that the board of ONE Haverhill would ‘consider’ opening its meetings to the public. It is not clear whether or not this represents a shift in position as that is just what they did last month and came down against it.
Of course I, along with the rest of you, am not allowed to be privy to the debate on this controversial issue, but I’m guessing there was some pretty strong advocacy of remaining in secret from some of the senior members of the board.
Some have made no secret of at least one fact – that they are opposed to meeting in public. Others, however, have a track record of saying one thing in public on this issue and another at the private meetings.
It was pretty clear at the public forum of Haverhill Town Council on Tuesday what the members of the public who take an interest in this sort of thing think about ONE Haverhill.
This is sad because, as several councillors pointed out, ONE Haverhill has done some excellent work, of great benefit to Haverhill in the field of apprenticeships, and more recently, leading the charge on the master plan for the town centre.
But ONE Haverhill members have no one to blame but themselves that the partnership’s reputation has become so poor. It is a curious mix, because in wording their ultimatum, town councillors said they had taken account of the powerful ‘brand’ of ONE Haverhill, in calling for the name to be retained in the new ‘transparent’ format they demand, as ‘ONE Haverhill Partnership’.
In one way the brand is seen as so powerful to the outside world that they don’t want the town to lose it, and yet to town residents and councillors it is so toxic that they would destroy it rather than retain it in its present format.
Much of this is to do with the fact that most people have never been able to grasp exactly what ONE Haverhill is and ONE Haverhill, short-sightedly, has never felt it incumbent to try to explain or justify itself publicly.
The nub of the problem lies within this attitude from many of the unelected members, particularly from the business community. They see no reason why they should be required to account in public for what they do – in fact, they think the public should be grateful for the time and effort they are putting in, without financial reward, to benefit the town.
These are people who have never put themselves forward for any form of public mandate through an election, and they don’t see why those who have should possess any more of the confidence of the public than they.
After all, they think, as people who run successful businesses or voluntary organisations, or who work professionally for local government as officers, they are almost certainly better qualified to make good decisions about Haverhill than inexperienced people who have just been elected to the town council.
It is this dismissal of the importance of a public mandate which has so enraged members of the public who believe in local democracy and led to the actions of One Haverhill being described at Tuesday’s meeting as ‘snubbing’ the people of Haverhill.
ONE Haverhill members probably view this as a spectacularly ungrateful portrayal of all their efforts. This will be either because they know nothing much about local government, or because they know too much.
Those who know nothing, such as business people whose only experience of it is as something which adds to their tax burden and blocks their planning applications, are only too pleased to grab a bit of power against it.
Those who know too much, such as officers who work for councils are only too aware of the fallibility of members who may well not understand half of the papers which they spend their working life preparing for them to read. Quite possibly they think all the big decisions are better left to officers – at least they often behave like that.
So where does this leave the whole concept of getting all the stakeholders together in one room, which was the basis of the Haverhill Partnership, out of which ONE Haverhill grew?
The rather boring answer is that we will have to wait and see. St Edmundsbury Borough Council, once again, bears a lot of the blame for what has happened, because it has seen ONE Haverhill as a way of offloading work and resources and yet also bypassing the town council which it sees as too Haverhill-orientated and, until recently, Labour-run.
The borough shows no sign of trying to get a handle on the situation, even exacerbating the problem with its recent indications of abandoning its only Haverhill group, the Area Working Party, leaving the town with no forum for debate within the town open to the public and thus shining the spotlight even more brightly on ONE Haverhill’s closed doors. But that’s another story…