Home Page There's only One Haverhill... but whose going to carry the can? 12/11/10

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

Here’s a new phrase to get familiar with – and remember, you read it here first – because it may well become much-used and/or abused in the near future: One Haverhill.

One Haverhill is the name that has been given to an idea, a working title for a scheme which would bring together all the different agencies and organisations which deliver services to residents of the town – councils, police, health, etc.

There has been a flirtation with joined-up government in this area for a few years now, in the form of the Haverhill Partnership, which is a rather loose grouping of anyone representing any organisation within the town, and it used to meet four times a year.

I remember going to some of the initial meetings and the number of attendees seemed to grow in inverse proportion to the size of the room available for the meeting.

One meeting in the room next to the library that is rather vaguely called the Burton Centre, saw people crunched up in chairs all around the edge of the space, rather like contestants in a party game such as musical chairs or pass the parcel.

The whole thing became unwieldy as a forum for making any sort of decision, and it also became unrepresentative of town interests. You would think that the more people who were there, the better represented everyone would be, but it doesn’t work like that.

Meetings were during the day, and business people were unwilling to give up time to something which would probably not benefit them directly. Local government officers attended by the shedload because they always seem to have time available for meetings.

And as the existence of the partnership became better known, more and more voluntary groups sent along representatives, mostly retired, and many of them serial meeting attenders.

It became a forum for the dissemination of information more than anything else. An executive group was formed from it to meet in between times and actually make a few decisions.

In parallel with this, St Edmundsbury Borough Council had set up a Haverhill Area Working Party, made up of local borough councillors but with representatives of other agencies like the town council invited to attend.

The latest initiatives connected with cutting public spending and building the ‘Big Society’ have brought into focus exactly what local partnerships need to achieve, and a review of Haverhill’s by St Edmundsbury suggests all elements should be brought together into one body to identify what is required and attempt to deliver it.

This revolutionary idea is called ‘One Haverhill’, and although the detail is being worked on and consulted on around the town, the fundamental idea would seem to make sense.

It will remove, or at least reduce, duplication and therefore save time and money. If everyone talks to everyone else the chances of dovetailing ideas successfully must be improved.

I would be more enthusiastic about this idea if it wasn’t for the fact that so many such organisations have begun with this very same premise and ended up drowning in their own complexity.

It seems to me there are two ways of delivering services. One is to ask everyone what they want and then try to be all things to all people. The other is to decide what you think people ought to want and provide it. This latter has been identified as a ‘nanny state’ approach – top-down prescription – and it is currently out of favour.

The trouble with the first option is that it takes a huge amount of time to decide to do anything at all and then a further huge amount of time is taken up in responding to complaints and trying to improve as a result, almost certainly thereby failing somebody else.

There is no doubt we in Haverhill are going to be facing some black holes in service provision in the near future. The size of the town, its remoteness from the main regional centres and its subordinacy to other larger centres of government, all conspire to make it an easy target.

Already this week we have seen that Suffolk County Council plans to withdraw its funding for the youth centre and much of the youth provision. This decision is obviously based on the certainty that someone will come in and pick up the responsibility voluntarily.

But issues like this will be filling up the in tray of One Haverhill, when that group is formed, all the time.

The most worrying thing in all this is that no one seems to be bothered about accountability any more. Once services are run by charities, not-for-profit companies or private enterprise the decision-making is no longer public. The first chance the public gets to complain is when things go wrong, by which time it may well be too late.

Haverhill Partnership’s executive group meets privately. The Haverhill Area Working Party meets privately. It’s a done deal that One Haverhill will meet privately, and then just present to us its decisions in the most favourable light. Does no one want to take responsibility for anything any more?

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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