Saturday, 22 September 2012

Why free-for-all conservatories won’t help

A few years ago I wanted a small extension to the house to create downstairs facilities for an elderly relative to stay. I carefully looked up the official help site and read the just expanded permitted development rights signed into law by Hazel Blears as the 2008 amendments - yes that’s right we have been here before, bizarrely the Labour Government significantly increased householder’s permitted development rights.
I was sure I was well within the permitted allowances but being a careful sort of chap decided to make sure and ask the council for a permitted development certificate. This is intended to be a simple certificate that confirms your intended extension abides by the permitted limitations – remember that if it doesn’t the council can come along after the fact and claim you misread the rules and you have to knock it down.

Now it should cost nothing and take a few minutes for a planner to confirm the situation but the council passed it all the way through their full planning process which took them 2 months to the day to make their decision known – 2 months being the absolute maximum time they are allowed under guidelines.  They refused it because the architect had made a simple typo, something that could have been sorted in a trivial phone call. We changed the plans and asked again. Once more they took the maximum allowance of 2 months to refuse it again. This time citing reasons that were neither mentioned in the 2008 statute or the official help information. So I appealed. That took almost 6 months until an inspector came, greeted the local planning officer like an old friend and he turned it down. 

Now you may say I’m an idiot, I must have misread the statutes and misunderstood the official help site on the web. No, nothing so simple! The local council didn’t like what I wanted to do, they are friends with the appeal officers, so they make stuff up. In my case it went (memory excepted) along lines something like this.

“Where was the original wall”, said the planner.
 “It was, and still is, here” I said.
“No it isn’t” said the planners, “it has newer cement than there and is therefore not the original wall”
“Yes indeed” I replied, “30 years ago, when the house was renovated a part of that wall was unsafe, so a section was repaired. You will notice it uses the original bricks and is in exactly the original position.
“But then it’s not original” claims the planner, “only remaining original walls can be used for the measurements. All rights are lost if a wall is demolished.”
“Yes, I realise that in other circumstances”, said I. “ but here is the regulation and it specifies the position, so whether it’s standing, removed, rebuilt or off with the fairies, or simply a badly drafted statute makes no difference, this is the position of the original wall, circa 1948 or when the house was built, as specified for the measurement.”
“Ah but this is a planning matter”, said the planner.” You must realise that ordinary words do not mean what you think they mean but have special interpretations and definitions with regard to planning.”
“No” say’s I, “This is a government statute. It may specify planning matters but it is law for the country. It must by definition mean exactly what it says and is not open to specialised planning interpretations.
“OK then”, he says “You can go to court to fight our interpretation, or build it and we will take you to court and we’ll see who wins.”

By that time it was over 18 months since we had needed the extension, so I gave up because life’s too short. But the point is that a gift of freedom to make a small house improvement will do nothing to help anyone at all unless the representatives of the planning system – and they are the local planners – are behind it. The current ‘relaxation’ is rather like giving your child a birthday present then warning them that they can leave it wrapped but if they open it you will roll a die and might take it away and punish them. How typical of authority such traps and scams have become!

Coincidentally just as I go to publish this post I saw this one from Graeme Archer. He gets it too.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Regulation and Organisation, compare and contrast

Our local town has an ‘antique’ market once a week. The last time I walked past a handful of desultory stalls were being picked over by a few bored town visitors, mostly the retired or out of work who have weekday mornings free but are hardly in the market for antique collectibles, plus a few workers who had escaped from the local shops and offices.  There are a few interesting items for sale, semi-antiques and collectibles of a type not usually found in the range of high street charity shops, but hardly enough to attract a crowd. The overall impression is of a rather sad affair.

It is of course run and regulated by the council, uses the council stalls, requires traders to be licensed by the council with fees, contracts and conditions and it uses the town market area, thus ensuring that the only inner town parking area is not available to visitors while the market runs, conveyances must be consigned to the rather (un)tender mercies of the pay and display multi-story car park. Basically it’s a waste of time.

A local cricket club holds a Sunday car boot sale. There were dozens of stalls and hundreds of people, complete families from granny down to the children, cheerfully and happily picking over the items for sale. Plenty of semi-antiques plus thousands of perfectly useable but outgrown toys, hobby items and unwanted ‘stuff’ cleared out from garages and cupboards selling for pocket money prices to other people who are just growing into a need for exactly those same items. Children finding exactly the toy they wanted for a few pence. Meanwhile the club hut served teas and bacon rolls and was surrounded by the older family members sitting outside enjoying a Sunday breakfast, resting their legs and chatting with friends.

The car boot sale is not run by the council. Sellers can decide at the last minute whether to turn up and sell, without advance contracts or red tape. Buyers can drive in, park free on a level adjacent field, and stay for as long or short a time as they wish. There are no (obvious) inspectors to ensure that trader X doesn’t infringe on the speciality of trader Y or try and sell some untested home produce without benefit of the food inspectorate, or make a profit on a job lot of Argos returns bought from EBAY without declaring the profit to HMRC. Yet that lack of regulation doesn’t mean it’s a free for all, just the opposite. The car boot sale is very well and highly organised, but organisation is by agreement because it’s done with a view to making minimal impact on people’s freedom but maximum effect at making the gathering run well. Ensuring everyone is able to do what they want to do with the minimum of difficulty, fuss and bother - thus everyone is perfectly happy to be organised. 

It is not regulated by the council – who I’m sure would love to close it down if they could find a pretext to do so.

This should tell us something, and highlights the key difference between organisation and regulation.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A thought Experiment -5 ways to make government more democratic.

It’s obvious that our democracy does not work. Political parties, elites and corporations have way too much power and control, and have fatally distorted the entire basis of our political system. Meanwhile our elected MPs have very little power and are under intense pressure to conform to party ideology.  Yet I am absolutely sure, even in these late times, that there exist plenty of sensible honest people who would be able and proud to take on the job of representing their part of the country in parliament. So without tearing up the whole system or trying to achieve mass voting for decision making (although that gets closer to real democracy) here is a simple list of things that I think would revolutionise the way things run., or in fact make them run more as intended.

The basis of representative democracy is that we choose representatives, as MPs, to do a job for us - but we are increasingly pushed into electing the party and the PM, which is quite wrong, it’s impossible to vote, with one vote, for both the best person and the preferred party ethos and elect a PM of choice, so why don’t we let our representatives do their job and really properly represent us?

1 – Remove the party name from election voting papers. They were added some years ago because people couldn’t remember which candidate was which, but have had the undesirable effect of moving people’s decisions from the individual candidate to party allegiance. Removing them will encourage voters to look more closely at the local candidate’s values. 

2 – Remove the automatic elevation of the election winning party’s leader into Prime Minister. Have the election first, then on day 1 of parliament’s opening allow the sitting MPs to do their work, and represent us in electing a PM from within their own number, the office to be held for a period of one year but with no bar on re-election. Often it will be the leader of the biggest party, and once chosen the PM will hold the role for the entire parliament exactly as happens now, but not always. I realise people may argue that doing so means they don’t get to vote for the PM – but they don’t anyhow! At least this would give every representative a say.

3 – Once elected the PM then suggests a cabinet to form the government, his suggested cabinet members, along with people sponsored from the floor of the commons if they so wish, should then also be subject to a parliamentary vote. Their position to be reviewed after a year, just as the PM’s is. The point of this is to remove the whip’s and the party’s powers over MP’s career and promotion prospects, which would no longer be at the whim of the PM or party grandees but lie entirely with our elected representatives, as it should. It also prevents the PM surrounding himself with like minded ‘yes men’. It could also mean that trusted and able MPs from other parties end up being voted into the cabinet. Good.

4 – Only local people should have a say in choosing their parliamentary candidate. While anyone could put themselves forward and ask for local party support there should be no outside party interference in the local choice of candidate, with a presumption of residence in or adjacent to the constituency.

5 – House of Lords reform. Set a suitable membership, let’s say 500 for convenience and dissociate it from the honours system.  Allow members of the (not just Lords but anybody) second house to retire or be removed if they don’t attend at least 50% of the time. Keep present members but when the number drops below the set membership fill the vacancies with people selected by a majority vote of the commons. Often they will be ex commons members and sometimes may be 'lords' as now, but that doesn't matter.  Such a move creates no sudden revolution nor any immediate change to the existing HOL but causes a gradual and ongoing change of membership and a gradual change from 'lords' made by the PM to appointees made by our MPs. The HOL stays free to act as a second chamber and retain the specialists and wiser heads to scrutinise legislation, which it can be very good at. But it prevents the population going overboard and voting lower and upper house in the same direction and having two houses like the USA vying for control and votes. Plus it prevents the government of the day making up new peers to dominate the HOL because they would have to wait for vacancies and get the Commons to agree all new people. So it would be slow moving change and completely out of step with short term voter and government sentiments. Now I fully understand that such an idea isn’t fully democratic, yet in another sense it is much more so than now as again it puts our directly elected representatives in charge, but in such a way and with an inertia that prevents control in the short term. After all our justice system, of which we were once very proud, relied on 12 good men and true – and they were not elected by anyone – but it worked.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Why science based decision making is a bad idea

It sounds very sensible, on the face of it, to suggest that government decisions should be based on science. We are told by the wastrels and pompous souls in Westminster that its a good thing. In reality of course they simply pick the bits of science that support their intentions or pay until science gives them the desired answers so its all nonsense and science is simply used as a screen.

But even if they did really and genuinely act on science would it help? I think not because scientists are often and increasingly the most inward looking and blinkered people on the planet. By its very nature modern scientists have to be specialists, in order to train they specialise in a subject, then they narrow it down. They form international research clubswith other similarly specialised scientists as they progress until their whole attention is directed at their particular speciality and the current groupthink.We see this clearly in climate (so-called) science. A process thats probably fine when it comes to understanding the universe is exactly the wrong approach to understanding or applying the science to society.

This was brought home to me recently on a visit to a National Trust place in the North East. Cragside House built by Lord Armstrong. I shall ignore the politics of the NT, and the morality of Armstrongs wealth from weapons manufacture but just note his technology. He equipped the house with Europes first hydro electric generator which supplied electricity and lighting to the estate. He had hydraulic powered equipment, like his lift, to service the house. He used these principles in his industrial designs for cranes and designed systems to accumulate the hydraulic power. Yet although being friends with scientists of the day and a learned man Armstrong was not a scientist. He was an engineer.

In my part of the country we have numerous canals, bridges and other leftovers of the industrial revolution. They were built by people like James Brindley, Thomas Telford, Mark Brunell, there was equipment designed by James Hargreves that revolutionised the cloth industy. Yet none of them were scientists as such but all people capable of applying science to the real world. Right back to the time of Leonardo Da Vinci the things which we use, the practical objects of everyday life, were invented by educated people who were not specialised scientists. Its  true that many such people came from backgrounds where family or commercial wealth allowed them the luxury of time and money to acquire an education and indulge their interests but even that is not always the case. Edison held a record number of patents but didnt have wealth or go to university. 

I dont know if its science that has lost its way, allowing an increasing number of people to know so much about a little that they lose perspective or whether the rise in influence of the vested interests that pay the scientists  is to blame. Wherever the problem lies it is something that will have to change because science based government is increasingly ignorant of reality.