Local MP and cabinet minister the Hon. Grant Shapps has launched a petition to trigger a review of Hatfield Town Council. It is promoted as an attempt to reduce Council Tax for Hatfield residents, who pay more than people in Welwyn Garden City but have less to show for it – as a quick walk around the two, very different, town centres will confirm (figures used are a comparison of Band D rates). However, it could mean more than that for Hatfield – and there may be more to this petition than advertised.
Please note: the latest update on this unfolding story is provided at the bottom of this page.
Hatfield Town Council (HTC) started life as Hatfield Parish Council in 1894. However, the merger of Hatfield Rural District Council and Welwyn Garden City Urban Development Council to form Welwyn Hatfield District Council (now Borough Council) in 1974, left it with very limited powers.
HTC operates Birchwood Leisure Centre and a few community halls, and manages some of the play areas, open spaces and allotments within Hatfield parish boundaries. It also manages the relationship with Hatfield's 'twin' – the Dutch town of Zierikzee, and publishes a quarterly magazine.
Town councillors do not receive a salary. However, there is a mayorship – which means, with the WHBC mayor, Hatfield has two mayors. Something which makes little sense for a town of this size.
Kennelwood House, Hatfield town centre – home to Hatfield Town Council before the move to Birchwood Leisure Centre
HTC role with regard to some of the issues facing the town – like the incinerator proposals, relocation of the Central Resources Library, and the stalled town centre redevelopment – is less clear. While most of the decisions on these key areas are taken at county or borough council level, it seems surprising that HTC does not appear to be providing much in the way of leadership on issues that would have a significant impact on the town.
While much may fall outside of HTC's official remit (and unelected officials are bound to be politically 'neutral') there are areas where the council does not appear to be promoting the town or addressing some of the negative perceptions about it. For example, HTC's website is not likely to encourage investors to put their money in Hatfield. While a visit to the Hatfield Town Council offices at the Birchwood Leisure Centre revealed that the public areas are decorated with images and information on our 'twin' town of Zierikzee – very little on Hatfield or its exceedingly rich history.
Hatfield Town Council has an annual budget of £1.3 million.
The additional cost to Hatfield residents for HTC has been put at an additional £1.34 per week (nearly £70 per year) based on Council Tax for a Band D property. However, this figure is challenged by opponents of the petition. Hatfield has the highest precept (a word meaning the collection of a payment under Rates or Council tax, as it is known today) in the Borough.
It is worth noting that while Welwyn Garden City does not have a town council it has an active campaign group, the Welwyn Garden City Society, that can bring pressure to bear on elected representatives and local authorities.
Reform of Hatfield Town Council could allow savings to be made, and Hatfield to have a greater voice in its own affairs.
If you're asked to sign a petition – whether it is for or against – check the details before you do (even if it is tempting to just sign and escape). And, if still in any doubt – don't!
The petition needs 2,342 signatures (10 per cent of the number of registered voters) to generate a review of Hatfield Town Council.
The petition should not automatically mean an end to Hatfield Town Council – although once a review is triggered the process is unclear. Indeed, scrapping the 100+ year-old town council will not mean that Hatfield will see a fair division of resources and equal sharing of the burden of social responsibilities – some of these inequalities were highlighted in the incinerator hot topic feature.
Further information on Hatfield Town Council costs, the petition campaign and the petition itself can be found on the Fairer Deal for Hatfield website:
Save Hatfield Town Council
Contains some arguments against the petition and some claims of improper behaviour by activists supporting the petition. Created by a prospective Labour candidate.
Please note: clicking on the links above will take you to external websites.
Given that the current population of Hatfield probably equals or exceeds the combined Welwyn Hatfield population when it was 'joined' with Welwyn Garden City in 1974, and the totally different nature of the towns, there is a strong case for Hatfield being allowed to have its own dedicated administration. So completely abolishing HTC is unlikely to be the best option. However, reform of Hatfield Town Council could be an important first step. A possible course of action would be for those WHBC councillors elected from Hatfield wards to form the executive of Hatfield Town Council and automatically become Hatfield Town Councillors as well. This may help them bridge cross-party differences and resist any pressure to put party loyalties above that of the electorate that installed them in power (either by people voting for them or not bothering to cast a valid vote – which allowed them to come to power).
If Hatfield voters don't take this opportunity to express their frustrations over the way the town is being run (by either signing the petition or joining the campaign against it) could have very serious consequences.
Firstly, it confirms the view that no one really cares about Hatfield (or they don't care enough to actually do anything about it other than complain) – especially to our MP (who had no trouble in getting several thousand signatures, which gave him the backing to secure the turnover of the decision to close the WGC sorting office), Hertfordshire County Council and Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.
That will only encourage more negative developments – people in authority generally like a quiet life, so if there's something nasty that is likely to lead to a storm of protest (like an incinerator) then it will be an easy option to stick it in Hatfield as there won't be any fuss.
It reinforces the negative views of Hatfield – like those in the book 'Horse's Arse', the film 'The Martins', and posts on chavtowns websites. Even though most of the troublemakers who created that perception of the town have left or died.
All of which makes it more difficult to attract investment to the town and the sort of people who will stand up for Hatfield.
A sign of the second coming of Hatfield's new town centre (the original plan failed to materialise several years earlier). Apart from the since removed signboards, so far the promised 2008 redevelopment is only visible as a few capped boreholes.
Hatfield's fate is in the hands of its people, and in a way Grant Shapps has issued a challenge (although no politician would say it like this): take this opportunity to secure a change or accept your lot and don't grumble about it.
Although there is more to the petition than the straightforward cost savings it suggests.
For or against? The choice is yours.
Unconfirmed report that MP Grant Shapps has withdrawn petition.
No further developments have been reported. However, at the Hatfield Town Council meeting on Wednesday, 22 June 2011, the matter was raised by a member of the public. The Mayor said he was told that the petition was still active. However, some councillors said that they had been told if enough signatures had not been obtained by the end of May 2011 then the petition would be dropped. HTC voted to ask the council clerk to contact the local MP for clarification.
Update 2 – 21.03.11
It was pointed out that amending the wording of the petition to ensure that any review (by an allegedly cash-strapped Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council of a now-solvent Hatfield Town Council) would not lead to HTC's abolishment without there first being a referendum among Hatfield taxpayers, would help allay concerns and persuade people to sign up.
Unfortunately, no such reassurance has been forthcoming. Instead it appears that our local MP has been canvassing support among Hatfield households using Conservative party supporters – some, if not all, are from outside the Hatfield Town Council area (one has admitted to being a resident of Letchworth). Such people are more likely to be motivated by their own political beliefs / loyalties rather than what is best for Hatfield (they won't have to live with the consequences).
This apparent attempt to force through the petition (which contains at its heart the premise that a Conservative-controlled council – in a swing seat – is wasting taxpayers' money) is disturbing, to say the least. It also raises questions as to the motives for such a move.
Apart from the obvious attraction of taking over Hatfield Town Council's finances and assets (which would probably help secure jobs at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council offices in WGC), opponents of the petition suggest that there are other potential impacts that have not been made clear to people being asked to sign up. For example, a local authority is only required to provide a set number of playing fields. Should WHBC be able to acquire HTC properties (like Birchwood and Roe Hill) they would be able to say some were surplus and sell them off – probably to property developers.
A local HTC Conservative counsellor has also questioned the figures used to illustrate the potential savings from scrapping Hatfield Town Council (suggesting that the true total would be much less), and also pointed out that Hatfield could potentially lose the services of two PCSOs.
Hatfield residents, be warned: there are also allegations that at least some supporters / party activists are making false claims when canvassing support for the petition (although similar charges are levelled at petition opponents).
All in all, this is a curious set of rather worrying events.
Update 1 – 28.02.11
A number of issues have emerged regarding the petition and proposals to reform Hatfield Town Council (HTC).
Firstly, giving HTC planning powers may require an act of parliament as currently planning powers are vested with district / borough councils. Hatfield Town Council in reality only has parish council powers.
Secondly, some people have questioned whether the petition is merely a ruse to transfer assets, finances and control to the WGC-based Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. By a curious coincidence, it turns out this year HTC cleared its outstanding debts and became solvent. Also, transferring additional administrative work will help safeguard jobs at WHBC – probably at the cost of jobs in Hatfield.
Finally, the consultative process is not particularly clear – leading to understandable fears that WHBC will not act in an impartial and unbiased manner. Although invited to do so our local MP has not given an undertaking that HTC will not be abolished without a referendum put to the people of Hatfield.
So the challenge now is for our MP to allay concerns (and accusations levelled by political opponents), via his fairerdealforhatfield site, that the whole exercise is not just another attempt to promote WGC interests over Hatfield's.
In short, not so much a fairer deal as another raw deal for Hatfield.