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Hart of the Matter

So, is it really ONE Haverhill, or is it still us and them? That is the question many people will be asking themselves in the wake of that organisation’s decision to keep its deliberations private.


Democracy, said Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government except for all the others which have been tried, and one of its biggest problems is that the more open a decision-making body becomes the less power it retains.


We have seen this over and over again in the cycle of local government re-organisations, both formal and informal, which have taken place over recent decades.


The aim, we are always told, is transparency and accountability. The power should be with the People and the People should be able to scrutinise those whom they elect to wield it.


But then the new organisation which has been created begins to find areas where it believes public scrutiny will hamper it from achieving the best outcomes. Sometimes this may be a concern about financial considerations such as business competition, which is reasonable.


But often it is a fear of how the views expressed in debate will be seen by members of the public who do not fully understand the issues involved. Therefore, it is argued, openness will stifle important debate and may even discourage important and able people from taking part.


This is a leftover from the patrician views of the past that only certain people can understand the minutiae of government and the rest can’t – them and us.


Churchill also said the best argument against democracy was a five-minute chat with an average voter. Harsh, you may say, but there are many in elected office today who, although they would never dare to admit it, maybe even to themselves, would have some sympathy with that.


The theory of democracy, and of complete openness, is a lot easier to believe in than the practice of it. However, one could argue that it is in these areas that our convictions are tested.


St Edmundsbury Borough Council, like most others, used to have a series of committees covering the various areas of its responsibilities – planning, housing, environmental health, finance, recreation and so on. These were politically balanced and open to the public.


Slowly it began to create sub-committees which would take on more delicate issues and which met in private. Then pressure came from the media and others that these should be open, and they eventually became so.


Then a new system came in, which is called cabinet government. Under this system the ruling party selects a leader, who in turn selects a cabinet of ‘portfolio holders’ for various areas of responsibility.


Now the committees have a different function – they are about themes such as scrutiny, sustainability, standards, licensing, performance and audit, etc. The stuff that most closely affects you and me may come through one of these, but will be decided at cabinet.


However the cabinet are all of the same party so there will be little disagreement. Real debate, if there has been any, will have been at their group meeting beforehand, which is held in private.


Some of the committees are not like the old one because they contain other people who are not elected councillors. These are called working parties, and they were set up to meet in private. They pulled together various strands of representation and influence to try to take a more holistic approach, particularly to certain areas.


We have one, called the Haverhill Area Working Party, nowadays known as HAWP. When it was first set up it had considerable powers exercised in secret. But the pressure built for these meetings to be public. Now they are, and slowly the process begins of chipping away at that power and setting up other smaller groups to tackle issues, often called ‘task and finish’ which will meet, of course, in private.


The same has happened with the Safer Neighbourhood Team, whose quarterly public forums have become a battleground, and whose executive meetings (in private) actually make the decisions.


Now ONE Haverhill, the latest effort at an even more holistic approach, is going through this process. From the extremely open Haverhill Partnership – so open that almost anyone could attend, take part and vote, which was very unwieldy – it is now almost entirely a secretive organisation.


Its public forums, six-monthly, began by being combined with those of the SNT, so that they barely happened at all.


It now has an executive board, which contains representatives from the three tiers of local government, but also from various agencies, utilities, voluntary sector, faith groups, etc, in an attempt to represent the entire community. Many of these people are not elected, and one might guess that they would be less keen on their views having to be given in public, as they are not used to that level of accountability. Anyway, that’s what the board voted.


Notes of their meetings are placed on their website, and that is supposed to make them transparent. It won’t work. As long as they want to meet in secret, people will assume they have something to hide and will not trust them.


But, sadly, as soon as they give in to the inevitable and open their meetings, the power will begin to migrate to smaller groups which will meet, of course, behind closed doors. And they will no longer constitute ONE anything.

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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