Home Page Vote of thanks to the outgoing town clerk should be heartfelt 11/05/12

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

On Tuesday next week, the annual meeting of Haverhill Town Council takes place, where a new mayor and deputy mayor will be officially chosen and various legal formalities will take place, as they have to do each year.


However, there is a more unusual and significant item on the agenda, in which the town council will register its thanks to the outgoing town clerk Gordon Mussett.


Mr Mussett has been part of a handover process for several months now, in which he has passed on the baton of town clerk to Will Austin, but he has now officially retired from the post, although he will still be doing some work connected with One Haverhill, so he won’t disappear entirely from the Haverhill scene just yet.


Nevertheless, this is the end of an era, because Mr Mussett has been town clerk for about 15 years, during which time he has completely revolutionised both the job and the council.


It is curious that someone who has been so central to Haverhill for more than a decade, and has been responsible for progress in so many areas of the town’s life should not, in fact, be a Haverhill person at all, but lives miles away in Essex.


His service to Haverhill has not been without its stormy periods and challenging battles. The first really big one was probably over the future of the town’s arts centre, where he sprang to prominence.


Before Mr Mussett, the town clerk’s role had been little different from that of the clerk to a village parish council, a part-time clerical job, generally carried out at home. After all, the town council’s base was at Bevan House, where it had met since its formation in 1989, but beyond the meeting room and a tiny office, there was space for little else.


But the job was inevitably growing, as the demands of the town needed to be met and the council was looking at ways of filling in what St Edmundsbury Borough or Suffolk County Councils failed to provide, mainly in the field of entertainment, such as the fledgling Haverhill Festival.


For many, a public meeting about a threat to the future of the arts centre was the first occasion when they became aware of the then relatively new town clerk, because he spoke up and challenged the borough officers and councillors in a way which was new but which we have come to know well since.


There was, and maybe still is in some places, a sort of unwritten code that officers of one council would not challenge officers of another council in public. Much to the surprise and annoyance of officers at St Edmundsbury, Mr Mussett drove a horse and carriage through that, not only at the meeting but at many others subsequently.


The borough backed off from some of the cuts it had been proposing, but it was only postponing the inevitable as it was clear St Edmundsbury had neither the will nor the ability to run the building viably.


It seemed a mammoth undertaking, but the town council emerged, under Mr Mussett’s guidance, as a credible alternative. I honestly don’t think the officers at St Edmundsbury believed the town council could make a go of it, and I don’t think they were terribly helpful because, of course, if the town council was successful, it was going to show up their own failures and shortcomings.


But the transfer took place and, not only was a thriving arts centre saved for the people of Haverhill, but the building provided, at last, a big enough central base for the town council itself.


An additional complication had arisen during all of these negotiations, because an election had brought to power on the town council a group of councillors who were not as keen on maintaining the arts centre as their predecessors.


That was not the only area of disagreement, and I imagine most people remember the political infighting which went on for months, if not years, and almost destroyed the whole town council.


It became intensely personal, and Mr Mussett was the target of considerable and ongoing efforts to traduce him, as were some senior councillors. They packed it in, but he has seen it through to steer the council into the calmer waters of today.


And just as well, because since the economic crash, both borough and county councils have sought to cut down the services they provide, and only the willingness of the town council to try to plug the gaps has kept the community afloat.


Numerous organisations have benefited from the advice and support of the town council, negotiated via Mr Mussett, without which they may well have folded up.


Most recently, his foresight guided councillors into the difficult decision to raise council tax to cover any failure of St Edmundsbury to continue its annual grant to the arts centre. Sure enough, this year the grant has been axed but, fortunately, the resources had been put in place to secure the building’s future.


Had they not been, either the building would have closed or the raising of the council tax to keep it open would, under new rules, have required a costly referendum to be held.


The town council is now a major player in any issue affecting Haverhill, whether it be the future of libraries, health provision, town centre retail, school crossing patrols – the list is endless.


So the vote of thanks on Tuesday should be heartfelt by most Haverhill residents of goodwill.

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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