Home Page What's good for transparency is unlikely to do much for ratings 05/07/13

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

This week we have seen some pressure, both national and local, for video cameras to be allowed into council meetings, in an effort to transmit their workings to a wider audience than the handful who ever bother to turn up for them.


Even at a full county council meeting it has to be a particularly hot issue to bring more than 20 or 30 people to the public gallery. Down at town and parish council level it is likely to be one or two members of the public, if that. I know, because for more than 30 years, on and off, I have been one of them.


Haverhill had no town council in those days, but I used to trot along to some of the village parish councils as a young reporter, and I regularly attended Clare’s parish council for some years.


When Haverhill’s town council was set up in 1989, it used to meet in the old council chamber of Haverhill Urban District Council, in the council offices in Lower Downs Slade. This was quite a grand room - if not the equal of the borough council’s chamber in Bury, at least as impressive as, say, the council chamber of South Cambridgeshire District Council.


There was an irony to this which continues to this day, although now in reverse. A town council is, essentially, just a fancy name for a parish council, if the community it represents is big enough.


Twenty-odd years ago the fledgling Haverhill Town Council had no more powers than those little parish meetings I used to attend. However, it deliberated in these grand surroundings – the high ceiling, the balcony for the public, the panelled walls, the high dais for the chairman and clerk, and the semi-circular, leather inlaid tables for the members.


On the walls hung a portrait of the Queen (of course), but also (less predictably) one of the mayor of Pont St Esprit in 1963 when Haverhill was first twinned with that delightful Provencal town.


Within these surroundings, matters as earth-shatteringly important the cutting of grass verges and dog-fouling on the Recreation Ground were discussed. One could not but feel the shades of the old UDC members – a few survivors of whom were still very corporeally present – recalling how huge decisions about town expansion and municipal housing had once been made on the same spot.


As the town council grew in confidence and status it added some more powers, and eventually took over Bevan House, the former Transport and General Workers headquarters on the corner of Crowland Road and Camps Road, now the Red Cross.


This was its own base, but very small, so meetings were now cramped into the one tiny room, which, apart from the kitchen, comprised the ground floor. There was hardly room for the public and, as a reporter, one was almost squeezed into sitting around the table with members.


Within this lowly environment some monumental decisions were taken. The whole saga of the Haverhill Representative Alliance takeover was played out, as was the decision-making process about taking over the arts centre from the borough council.


Annual town council meetings had already migrated to the arts centre auditorium, as the borough decided it needed the old council chamber in Lower Downs Slade to be converted into offices. After 15 years of waiting empty, it was used again for less than a decade.


Eventually all meetings moved to the arts centre studio, a small square room with basic tables and plastic chairs and no grandeur whatsoever, and that is where, since the town council has become the last line of defence against cuts, members battle with ideas about how to stitch together a continuance of such vital services as health, police, housing, youth provision, along with economic survival.


As the surroundings have declined so the responsibilities have increased, even though the actual powers are still extremely limited. And this is the dramatic scenario which some residents would seek to put before the public visually.


In theory it is a very good idea indeed, because it would hold councillors to account. Residents would be able to see who spoke and who didn’t, how well they spoke, whether they represented their electorate’s views correctly and which way they voted. In theory.


In practice, I have my doubts, certainly in terms of ratings. Any recording of a meeting would have to be unedited, for it to be a true representation of what the public would actually see if they attended the meeting.


In that case, the ‘two hours’ traffic of this stage’ - to quote a man who knew a lot more about entertaining an audience than councillors do - would be among the most preternaturally boring viewing it is possible to imagine for about 90 per cent of the time.


It could almost get into the language. Instead of using paint drying as a simile, people might start using a parish council video. I have lost count of the number of people who, turning up for a town council meeting for the first time for a specific issue (usually to ask for a grant), have asked me how I could sit through this regularly and if so, whether I was being paid enough to do it.


This is not to say that councillors are boring people – not at all. For the other ten per cent of the time, we get some nice little spats and some splendid expressions of fury or frustration. But it would be like watching a 1950s biblical epic for the jokes.


And if you think the borough or county council meetings would be more exciting, you don’t realise how rarely either of them even mention Haverhill at all.

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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