Hart of the Matter
Wherever I go at the moment it seems there is only one fundamental issue everyone is talking about – change due to financial cuts.
It appears in numerous different ways but, like the Hydra of classical legend, all the heads belong to the same body.
Haverhill Town Council on Tuesday night talked of little else. Haverhill Partnership yesterday morning talked of little else. The Government’s daily diet of new proposals, from education to the health service is about nothing else.
It seems to be pretty much accepted that the cuts are going to come and all we have to do is work out how the new world left over after the storm is going to be made to work.
There was a lone dissenting voice after the partnership had heard how cuts to the fire service will affect Haverhill. Mick Smith of HAVO said he’d rather pay more in tax and keep the public services. If you say that in political circles they call you a dinosaur and look at you as if you had just crawled out from Arthur Scargill’s shadow.
Of course, there are areas of dissent and pockets of resistance at a local level – and, after all, this is what the Government appears to be encouraging.
The partnership had an interesting presentation from Tracy James of Go-East (as the Government offices for the east of England are trendily called now) about the Big Society and how it will work.
Having witnessed the partnership in action for a good two hours before she got to speak, she admitted it was an example of the Big Society in operation. Too right. We’ve been doing it in Haverhill for years because we had no alternative.
The unfair thing is that the cuts fall equally upon our long-starved services and on the fatter leafy suburbs where people have the resources to set up their own alternatives.
Suffolk Fire Service is the most cost-efficient in the UK, we were told, but it will still have to cut as much as everyone else, so frontline staff will be affected, whereas in lazier places where they have a lot more office back-up the effects can be cushioned. In effect, we are penalised for our good husbandry.
But Go-East’s overview of the Big Society and the forthcoming Localisation Bill assumes a) that we are wasteful and b) that we sit around and wait for the state to do everything for us.
It promises to decentralise and devolve decision-making down to us – The People. Apart from this being a scary prospect for anyone who deals with the public enough to know how easily it can be swayed into knee-jerk reactions, it isn’t even true.
Look at the dilemma of the town council, which is now faced with trying to pick up the pieces from all the cuts from Government down through county and borough councils.
The town council is the bottom of the heap – basically the same as a village parish council – and was, in many ways, a luxury when it was created in 1989 with the aim of doing little things to fill in tiny holes in the fabric of service provision.
Pretty soon, it is going to find itself shoring up the whole building or else letting it fall down around our ears.
It has been able to embark on a rescue package so far for one simple reason – whereas the large county and borough council elements of council tax were capped so that they could only rise as much as the Government allows, parish councils were not capped.
They raise relatively tiny amounts, so any increase can seem huge in percentage terms.
You would think the devolvement downward would favour such organisations. Not a bit of it. Along with the ‘localisation’ comes a requirement for any ‘excessive’ council tax rises imposed by town and parish councils to be subject to a local referendum.
Fair enough, you might say – democracy in action. You can decide at a local level what you want to pay for. Except that it isn’t like that. The council that wants to raise a bit extra to save a local provision is not allowed to canvass during the referendum. It can’t explain to people why it wants to raise more money, or what great benefit may come from a small extra outlay.
All it can do is say: “Do you want to pay more council tax or not?” I think we all know what the answer to that is likely to be. Most people have not got the time to bother to research and understand the details.
So, having capped off the pressure cooker at county and borough level, the Government is addressing small leakages of steam at the base, and putting the issue into the hands of – with the best will in the world – ignorance. We, the public, are not experts. If the issues can’t be explained clearly to us, we are never going to discover them for ourselves.
I virtually never use Haverhill’s sports facilities. But if I was asked to pay more to have them improved, I would agree because I know many people gain great benefit from them. But if I’m asked to pay more without knowing where it’s going, that’s a different matter.
In other words it’s localisation for all the work and responsibility, and centralisation still for the funding.