Home Page Value for money is not just a matter of good or bad services 22/03/13

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

Next week we enter the new financial year, so you will have had a new council tax demand and you will see that it is exactly the same as the last one.

Of course, it isn’t really exactly the same, because we have had inflation of between two and three per cent, depending which figures you follow, so actually it is between two and three per cent down on last time.

So, in the nature of things, we can expect we will get a two or three per cent poorer service from our councils and police than we got last year. However, that doesn’t take into account the great big scoop which the Government has taken out of these local budgets.

In essence, then, we have just got to get used to services being less effective. We do not, however, have to put up with them being less efficient – in fact, they should be more efficient, to ensure that we get better value for our hard-earned cash.

People in Cyprus have been kicking up at their government levying ten per cent of their savings, because it was money they thought they had stashed away. But governments everywhere take much more of our money than that in income tax, VAT, etc, from which they are supposed to put in place the institutions which make life civilised – defence, health, education and the rest.

If the Cyprus government just instituted a ten per cent increase in these kinds of taxes, they could raise the money in a more democratic and acceptable way - if nonetheless unpopular.

But somehow that is not acceptable to economists and money markets in Europe. Somehow it is more acceptable to steal money from people directly than to do it via tax. The latter would be inflationary.

It is this fear of increases in taxation which has led to such minor benefits in the great scheme of things as our frozen council tax. There are caps on what councils can do, so they could not raise a load more money to keep providing the services people want, even if they wanted to.

Councils are not considered to be responsible enough decision-makers to be free of financial constraint. After all, anyone could get elected. This is another example of so-called democracy in action.

If we resent it in li’l ol’ Haverhill, they resent it a lot more in those countries which now feel the weight of EU disapproval, and the general implication that even their elected governments aren’t responsible enough people to be trusted with any degree of financial freedom.

It seems, alas, that no one is responsible enough for that, except people who really understand money – bankers. And now the Chancellor has decided to follow suit, to return to sub-prime mortgages and freedom for lenders to lose a whole load more on our behalf.

The reason for all this lunacy is simple – there is a housing shortage. Whether you believe that housing shortage is current or predicted in the light of immigration fears is irrelevant. It is still a powerful driver of decision-making in this country.

And if you think I’m just knocking the Chancellor, that’s not the case, because with his other hand he produced cash for the regions to spend on infrastructure. If any of that was to filter down to mid-Anglia, Haverhill could benefit substantially.

These two strands are connected by a third one – the announcement by Astra Zeneca that they are establishing their HQ in Cambridge, bringing thousands of jobs and lots of prestige with it.

The pressure for housing in Cambridge has pushed prices beyond what most ordinary people can afford, let alone first-time buyers, even on the Chancellor’s new 100 per cent mortgages. A small two-bedroom period terraced house is on the market for £750,000.

So where will these people live? One might like to hope the answer would include Haverhill. Already we have the promise of Addenbrooke’s doubling in size to 17,000 workers by later on this decade. Haverhill has always been the most convenient Cambridge satellite for Addenbrooke’s. Access to the science park is also fairly convenient via the back roads to the A14.

If you travel to Cambridge between 5.30pm and 6.30pm, you cannot miss the 18-mile traffic jam coming the other way now, before any of these increases occur.

It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that, sooner or later, this transport corridor is going to need serious thought, and not just the peripheral tinkering that is going on at present – joint meetings, talk of minor improvements, maybe another form of express bus.

This is the proverbial moving of deckchairs on the Titanic. The reason is that we are in Suffolk and the road is in Cambridgeshire.

So who needs to be pressured to focus more on this? Oh yes, surprise, surprise, it’s the county council’s portfolio holder for transport, Cllr Guy MacGregor who seems at present to be obsessed with the bus from Bury St Edmunds to Stansted via Haverhill.

Now I don’t say this isn’t a good thing. We had it before and it folded, but 100 minutes to central London is not to be sneezed at. But if he thinks that will solve a need for transport to Bury, he can think again. First, the need is unproven, except for the hospital. Is an express bus to Stansted really going to get caught up delivering and picking up at the hospital?

Secondly – and the county seem impervious to reason on this – Haverhill looks to Cambridge, not Bury. Cambridge is the big gun here, beside which Bury is a pea-shooter.

So my question is, with county elections on the horizon: Are we getting value for money, particularly in fundamental decision-making, from Suffolk County Council? Has the county understood Haverhill’s requirements properly? Does it have a handle on priorities here?

If you answer no to any of these queries, I suggest you need to vote in May.

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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