Home Page Town councillors need to be careful about bandying around 'elitist' tag 15/07/11

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Hart of the Matter

The spending of public money has become a much more closely scrutinised process than it ever used to be, thanks to a variety of influences – the Freedom of Information Act, the rise of the Internet, the financial crash, etc.


In Haverhill there has been a particular reason for this in recent months because Haverhill Town Council was the only organisation involved in the setting of council tax levels which did not freeze them this year.


Suffolk County Council, St Edmundsbury Borough Council and Suffolk Police Authority all made a great fuss about the fact that they were not raising council tax at all, despite all the financial constraints on them.


So Haverhill Town Council’s decision tended to cast them as the villains of the piece, if you didn’t bother to look closely into the details of the issue.


There were clear reasons which you may or may not agree with, based around a wish to continue to fund the arts centre and a lack of trust that St Edmundsbury would go on putting in their share, plus the knowledge that, from next year onward, a big rise in council tax would have to be subjected to a referendum.


This was therefore a window to achieve financial security, because the council was uncertain (quite rightly) that people would vote in favour of such a move in any referendum – quite apart from what a referendum would cost.


But at the time they made the decision, councillors pledged that, if the money was not needed to fund the arts centre they would ‘return it to the people of Haverhill’, an interesting hostage to fortune.


However, it appears St Edmundsbury will continue to contribute at least something towards the arts centre, so there will be some excess to be ‘returned’.


The personnel of the town council has changed since May’s election, but one gets the feeling that the responsibility to hold to this pledge is still keenly felt, although quite how the intention is interpreted and implemented is unclear.


It could mean handing the money back in the form of gift vouchers, but I doubt it. More likely, there will be an attempt to use it to fund vital needs within the town, mostly brought about by the cuts of other authorities (which, incidentally, allowed those authorities not to raise their council tax).


Thus it could mean funding an extra police officer, or lollipop people, or the library, or any one of a number of areas where there are perceived threats to the level of service.


However, anyone who thinks the town council is going to be a ‘soft touch’ would do well to examine a couple of its recent decisions, which show some new priorities emerging among the now Labour-controlled council (although I’m not sure politics really enters into it).


For instance, it refused to fund a scheme put together by one of the town’s policemen, to security-mark motor-bikes, saying people who could afford a motor-bike could afford to security-mark it themselves.


There were vulnerable people in need in the town, and councillors should not be talking about paying to protect people’s property, the new town mayor said.


And then councillors threw out a request from Samuel Ward Academy for funding towards its summer camp for primary school pupils, an annual event previously paid for by Suffolk County Council, but now in need of funding since, as the college has become an Academy, it doesn’t get money for this sort of thing from the council any more.


The reason for this was that, now the college is an Academy, and not funded by the local authority, it is no longer a state school, and therefore was dubbed ‘elitist’ by the mayor.


This is quite a leap and, bearing in mind that Castle Manor is also a long way down the road to becoming an Academy, presumably means that the town council will no longer be helping to fund anything the town’s main schools/colleges/whatever do in the future.


It also means that it behoves anyone who hopes to make a successful application for financial help from the town council to look carefully at how inclusive the activity is for which they are requesting support.


In itself, this is not a bad thing, but it represents a big change from the past impression that the town council would go out of its way to help activities in Haverhill which benefited Haverhill people in some way.


Councillors now clearly feel they have taken a deep plunge into the pocket of goodwill among their electors and cannot afford to be seen to be gifting any of the proceeds to anyone or anything which does not have the widest possible application.


The difficulty with that view is that it is also, in its own way, open to being subjective. People may very well feel they don’t want to contribute towards a school activity only open to certain children (especially as it meant contributing to the teachers’ salaries), but may not other people have other ideas about what they don’t want to contribute towards?


The town council is helping to fund the very praiseworthy new town pastors scheme. But there may be those who never come into the town centre in the evening, have no younger relatives who might go out and get drunk on a Friday night, and think it is their own fault if they get into trouble.


Among all its many other considerations, the town council should be careful about defining what is an ‘elitist’ service.

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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