Home Page Under-played drama of annual meetings produces new scenery 13/05/11

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

Anyone unfamiliar with local government who attended Haverhill Town Council’s annual meetings at Haverhill Arts Centre on Tuesday evening would have left rather mystified.


First of all, there was the Annual Town Meeting. The hall was set out as for theatre, and on stage was an arc of standard foldaway tables with 16 plastic chairs behind them. In one of them, right in the centre, sat one councillor with the town clerk beside him. It might have been the opening of a play Tom Stoppard, or Alan Bennett, or even the surrealist N. F. Simpson.


The meeting lasted just four minutes. There were just four items on the agenda – Apologies, Town Mayor’s Report, Minutes of Last Annual Meeting and the open forum for members of the public to raise any issues of concern.


Our novice attendee may well have heard and read a considerable number of complaints and protests about a wide variety of issues in Haverhill over the past 12 months, because there have been many.


He or she might have expected at least one of these to surface on the one occasion in the year when people can say what they think in the hope that people might hear and take notice of it.


That, after all, is the point of the annual meeting. Each month at town council meetings there is a public forum, but that is granted by the council and not required by law. This annual meeting is the one enshrined in law for residents to have a public say.


As it was, no one had anything to say at all. One member of the public questioned where all the councillors were, looking pointedly at all the empty seats on stage. The town clerk explained the meeting was nothing to do with councillors, who only attend as members of the public.


It has to be chaired, so the town mayor does that job, but apart from that it is entirely open and should be non-bureaucratic. As it was, the past town mayor had stood down at the elections and was not around, and the new one had not been elected yet, so there was no report and the  past deputy mayor did the chairing – such as was needed.


Anyone expecting formality, or even civic grandeur, would have been very disappointed. It was a far cry from the days when the council was founded, only just over 20 years ago, when meetings took place in the council chamber in Lower Downs Slade, with the daunting furniture of the former urban district council, more like a courtroom.


There was no sense that the councillors who were soon to take their place in the arrayed seats for the Annual Meeting of Haverhill Town Council – a very different thing – had any power at all to affect our lives.


This is a strange turnaround because, in the early days, that was actually the case – they were pretty much powerless, but rather grand to watch. Since then various tiers of government have been divesting themselves of services as fast as they can and delegating downwards so that the town and parish councils – the bottom of the heap – actually now have enough powers to affect our lives to a considerable extent if they want to.


And, to do Haverhill Town Council credit, they have wanted to, in dearth of anyone else to do anything for us. So now they have some power, but are rather unimpressive to watch.


This was how it continued. The new councillors were introduced and made their way very casually to their seats. As a play it lacked any dramatic tension.


And then something extraordinary happened. After all the hammering on of the past months and years about the town council being different from other tiers of government in that it was largely non-political and all about working together, there was an almost silent and bloodless political coup.


I don’t know whether the Conservatives were resigned to what was going to happen and could do nothing about it, or whether they were naive enough to be caught on the hop, but they began the meeting on equal terms with Labour as a result of the election, and within ten minutes were out of office.


I suspect they knew because, even if one of their number had not been absent on holiday, they agreed to elect a Labour mayor, and if the votes were all square, the mayor would have had the casting one. But perhaps they thought there was a gentleman’s agreement about co-opting one of each political colour.


If that was the case, the well-prepared Labour group had other ideas, and their machine ruthlessly flattened the opposition and took over.


For those of us who remember how the very committed previous Labour council was treated by Mabon Dane and a mostly ignorant public in 2003, there was a certain poetic justice to their return from the wilderness.


It remains to be seen whether the Labour group of 2011 has the wisdom and commitment of its forbears, and can make the town’s case heard at a higher level as they did.

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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