Home Page What does the borough actually do for our money? 25/10/13

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Hart of the Matter

Trying to get your head around the ways in which local government is funded is enough to put you into therapy, but the latest developments surrounding the Government’s transitional Council Tax Support Grant are probably going to focus our minds on it because they look like hitting our pockets.


This is a grant which the Government put in place to try to alleviate the effects of the cuts in funding which it brought in as part of the now notorious ‘Austerity’.


Because councils tend to plan their budgets and estimates some way ahead and they have ongoing service commitments which would cause real hardship if they just stopped overnight, the Government kindly put in a little bit of cash to help them wind down the services instead.


This is the famous Death By A Thousand Cuts, supposedly preferable to a quick execution. We have been suffering it for some years now, but may not have seen the true nature of it because of the little loophole of parish councils.


The Government can cap county and borough or district council tax rises, but until recently there was no cap in place on the parishes – mostly because they spent so little money it wasn’t worth bothering with when Margaret Thatcher first capped council spending.


But some parish councils, like Haverhill’s, are called town councils and provide rather more than the ordinary village ones, because they have a greater potential income, thanks to their much larger number of residents.


As Austerity took hold, Haverhill Town Council began to be the safety net to shield the town’s residents from the slashing going on across the county. To do that it had to raise its own share of council tax, so that it is now almost as much as St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s, although both are, of course, dwarfed by the huge Suffolk County Council element.


When you think about it, this is hardly surprising because the borough has offloaded so many services it is hard to see exactly what purpose it serves now in Haverhill.


Almost everything you can think of is now the responsibility either of the county council or the town council, or one of the big agencies the borough has set up like Havebury or Abbeycroft.


The fact that we still pay as much to St Edmundsbury as we ever did seems, in these circumstances, to be a bit of an anomaly. But, like the energy companies, councils lowering their council tax demands are virtually unknown, however many savings they make.


They make a virtue of a council tax freeze, achieved by doing less than they used to. If car manufacturers operated like that, producing new car models which were less good and charging the same for them, they wouldn’t survive for long.


But, of course, we have no choice about whether or not we pay our council tax. We can’t look at, say, the pig’s ear which Suffolk County Council has made of replacing Clements Primary School with a new building far too small for purpose, when they must have had pupil estimates available, and decide to buy our school buildings from someone else next time.


Instead we shall just have to watch what happens on other new or expanded school sites in the town, under the Schools Organisational Review which turned them from three-tier to two-tier, and see how many they have got right.


You may say we can just elect different councillors but, sadly, that would have no effect, because these sorts of errors are probably not caused by councillors at all but by officers, designers, consultants and a whole gamut of people who advise councillors at vast expense. And they don’t change.


The latest fuss over the transitional grant has been caused by St Edmundsbury deciding to keep some of it – more and more of it, actually, over the coming years, until they are, presumably, keeping all of it. It was decision they made without consulting anyone else.


It was £129,000 to Haverhill Town Council, and now it looks as though our council tax will have to go up - bit by bit because even town council increases are now capped to a limit beyond which you have to have a local referendum, and we all know how that would end up. Would turkeys vote for Christmas?


Ironically, yesterday saw the official opening of the Jubilee Park on the site of the old Clements school, a project by the borough in Haverhill which has cost £150,000. It’s a nice little area and they’ve done a good job, after consulting with local people about what they wanted.


But surely, surely, if this had been done by a private company on a commercial basis, they would have been required to create something like this on the old site in order to get planning permission to build on the site of the new school at Puddlebrook. It wouldn’t have cost the borough anything.


It appears that only the private sector is subjected to so-called ‘planning gain’ deals – the public sector can do what it likes, and mess it up without any comeback.


So, as we look around for evidence of what the borough actually does in Haverhill for our money, we see litter collection and grass-cutting (contracted out), running elections – oh, and Haverhill Area Working Party, with its inestimable oversight of the town centre traffic arrangements, and its wise scrutiny of the Vision 2031 Local Plan.


But don’t let’s get on to planning, because that is where the borough has its biggest thumb in the Haverhill pie. There’s always got to be somewhere for them to put more houses.

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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