Hart of the Matter
It is probably a relief to almost all Haverhill residents to hear that our council tax is not going up this year. First Suffolk County Council decided to freeze their whopping great wadge of it, then St Edmundsbury Borough Council and now Haverhill Town Council have followed suit with their smaller, but still significant, shares.
We can see the cost of the county councilís freeze in the reduction and termination of services. The same is true of St Edmundsbury, both of them vowing to maintain what they call Ďfrontline servicesí, by which they mean things so vital to residents that cutting them would be surefire vote-losers.
Haverhill Town Council have achieved their freeze so far by using up the extra money they squeezed out of us to safeguard the arts centre a couple of years ago. But storm clouds are already approaching, and next year it will be cuts or raising council tax Ė and they canít do that very much at all without triggering a referendum.
ĎDifficult decisionsí lie ahead, we are told Ė and most people probably accept that in the current climate. When decisions are difficult, even more care needs to be taken over making them.
Letís hope councillors and officers are already thinking now about what to do next year and not just waiting until they have to make knee-jerk reactions to financial constraint.
Letís also hope they are thinking these things through in detail so that we donít get some of the perverse decisions we have lately seen, particularly at county council level.
You may remember the New Strategic Direction, announced with a fanfare three years ago. It basically meant getting rid of everything that cost money in a stripping exercise worthy of Gypsy Rose Lee.
Fortunately, well before it got down to the buff it ran into the buffers of public outrage and the council leader and chief executive both got out, to be replaced with something a little more rational. But what a waste of time, energy and resources, at a time when they can ill be spared.
Now we have a microcosm of this taking place in Haverhill, with the threat of a costly judicial review over the Burton Centre. With a bit of luck it wonít be direct cost to us as residents, but itís still public money, of which there is not enough to go round at the moment.
Of course, the legal process, if it happens, will be aimed at saving a vast amount of public money, so it has some rationale on the part of the town council.
Defending the challenge would seem to have no rationale for the county council at all, except the wish not to appear to have been wrong, and not to go back on its offer to such a worthy cause as St Nicholas Hospice.
No one doubts the hospice should be found the premises it needs in Haverhill. The question is just whether the Burton Centre is the most efficient place to choose.
But with these authorities divesting themselves of their responsibilities as hard as they can go, it is difficult to see who really has the power to resolve anything, short of the courts.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is: Where should this decision lie? If we donít want to waste public money by putting it into lawyersí pockets, in what alternative forum ought it to be resolved?
The county is one party in the case, so it canít be there. St Edmundsbury has its Haverhill Area Working Party, which is now so nearly redundant that it sometimes doesnít even bother to meet. Haverhill Town Council is the other party in the case.
What we need is an organisation made up of representatives from all parts of the community. Oh yes, of course, we have one. Itís called ONE Haverhill, and it impressed the Government so much that it was put in charge of delivering one of just twelve pilot projects nationally on community budgeting.
So, you may ask, what is ONE Haverhill doing in all this? The first thing to say is that it is not particularly easy to find out the answer to that question, because the ONE Haverhill board meets in private.
And if you thought people like me jumping up and down complaining about that last year was all a bit of administrative navel-gazing, think again now, because if ever the public needed an open window into a bizarre fiasco it is here and now.
As one of the town councillors said this week, the countyís decision over the Burton Centre is so ridiculous and so perverse, it just makes residents laugh at the stupidity of councillors.
There must be arguments on both sides, one presumes, but we do not hear the debate and the result just looks a mess.
Well, it may interest you to know that the board of ONE Haverhill did meet early in February, and it decided, in pursuit of its already agreed number one priority, to bring about one-stop youth services for Haverhill, delivered from a single dedicated youth centre.
Hooray, one might cry. This, surely, means the situation can be resolved. But then you have to take into account politics. The chair of ONE Haverhill is the county councillor who approved St Nicholas having the Burton Centre and did not approve the town councilís bid.
There are political dynamics driving a lot of this fiasco Ė Tory county council versus Labour town council, and so on.
So, although at the end of all this, we may get a live animal, it is less likely to be the sleek racehorse we hoped for, or even the famous camel designed by a committee, and more likely to be a costly, unwieldy and mythical gryphon, made up of two incongruous creatures stitched together and reared in a secret laboratory.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.