Home Page Watch out for that Referendum - it could be heading our way 02/12/16

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Hart of the Matter

In this secular age in Britain it is difficult to commit anything which is still considered to be blasphemy by the general populace, rather than by the adherents of a particular religion, but recent events have served to provide a new opening for blasphemers.

All you have to do is to suggest that a mysterious and ill-defined entity known as ‘The Will of the People’ should be in any way questioned. This Will of the People has apparently been identified in the Referendum of June 23, in which we collectively decided we wanted out of Europe.

The issue might seem of minor importance in the day-to-day lives of Haverhill residents, except that the process of referendum could very soon be particularly relevant to us.

The Government has yet to make clear whether it is going to extend the current cap on local authority spending down to the level of town and parish councils. If it does, any attempt to raise council tax by more than two per cent in any year would trigger a referendum in the parish.

So far, the cap on spending imposed on county and borough or district councils since the days of Margaret Thatcher has resulted in – as well as a housing crisis - massive cuts in services, many of which have been picked up in a small way by town or parish councils as a sort of safety net.

The consequence is that residents have not felt the cuts as significantly as they might have done, but they have noticed a dramatic increase in the element of their town council tax which is charged by town and/or parish councils in larger villages.

This has annoyed many and has resulted in them electing protest candidates in the form of Independents, small local parties, or in our case UKIP.

UKIP councillors are particularly fond of the idea of referendums in theory because, after all, they just won the big one. But faced with the reality of running local councils they may be having to adjust their ideas.

Take the issue of Haverhill’s sad-looking Corn Exchange. The idea of securing this as a public building has been something of a UKIP flagship, launched in opposition to the previous Labour administration’s aims to create a youth hub, first at the Burton Centre and then, when they lost out on that to St Nicholas Hospice, at the old magistrates court.

Exactly where we are in any negotiations over that building are a closely guarded secret, but it is obvious that any effort by the town council to save it and turn it into something useful would run a long way into six figures.

Put that along with the current series of planned council tax rises to cover the transitional money which should have come from the Government to our town council but which somehow found its way - of its own accord, apparently - into St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s trouser pockets, and you have a recipe for a large funding hole if the possible cap is to be imposed.

Last week’s town council meeting was inquiring about how the referendum process would work, because, faced with a choice between what the town clerk described as ‘significant’ cutbacks in the budget and the challenge of breaking the two per cent limit, if it comes in, they preferred the latter.

However, they were in for a shock. The rules of the referendum process are curious to say the least. Firstly, you have to include the cost of the referendum in your budgeting, which is about two per cent. So, if you were aiming for four per cent, it makes it automatically six per cent.

But if you lose the referendum you don’t get that money back, so you are now not only two per cent down, but four per cent, and your ‘significant’ cuts are likely to become ‘severe’.

Even so, UKIP members thought Haverhill people might still wear the increase if they knew it was to provide a wonderful asset in the form of a saved and refurbished Corn Exchange. Others were more sceptical, maybe with good reason.

But the clincher came from the town clerk who explained that the council would not be able to phrase the question in the referendum. The Government does that, and you can bet your boots it would be something along the lines of: ‘Would you like to have your council tax increased by six, (seven, eight, nine, whatever) per cent?’

So I think we can all say that we know in advance what the result of such a referendum would be. Now the question is, in such a case would the Will of the People be right?

Is it – and look away now because here comes the blasphemy – possible for the Will of the People to be wrong?

When faced with such difficult philosophical questions it can help to look back through history for answers. The financial crash of 2007-8 is nearly a decade away now, but its seismic effect is still gathering strength in political terms.

It was the biggest financial disaster since 1929, when the world was in a serious state of inequality already, after the way Germany had been ground down in the wake of the First World War. In that tinder-like atmosphere the fire of politics took hold a lot more quickly.

Within four years we saw two utterly different approaches to the Great Depression. In America, where even the richest had been reduced to living in shanty towns and tents, there was an ‘all in it together’ feeling, very different from the hypocritical one George Osborne claimed.

The Will of the People brought in a president who invested massively in infrastructure projects – Rooseveldt’s New Deal. It worked, so one might say the Will of the People was right.

In Germany, where some rich people were still doing well, but the majority had been completely left behind by the surviving elite, the Will of the People elected an outsider to clean the whole thing up, a little-known crowd-pleaser called Adolf Hitler.

If you watch footage of his rallies there is no denying what the Will of the People was in Germany in the 1930s. Could it be that it was wrong? Could it be that someone should have stood up against the Will of the People? And could it be that because someone didn’t – at least not successfully – that millions died?

To return to the American model, perhaps if a number of bankers had been living in tents and shanty towns around the City of London – or in prison - in 2010, we would not be where we are today.


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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