Friday, 30 January 2015

Freedom of screech…

It’s funny (depending, of course, on your definition of that word): but I thought I saw Jim Davidson in Bart’s, the other day; in the queue just in front of Jethro, and Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown – all proudly wearing their four-inch-diameter “I heart Bernard Manning” badges on their chests: featuring a portrait of the man once described as “a comedic dinosaur” (although I would debate the use of that word “comedic”). What I didn’t know, though, was that Davidson was Scottish; or had “Alasdair McAlasdair” as a non-de-fume.

I’m not quite sure either what the point is (simply put, of course, there isn’t one…) of giving over two pages of February’s Tysoe & District Record to the misogynistic, almost-racist, nonsensical rantings of a self-important, self-deluded worshipper of Onan; what it achieves; or who – apart from its author – finds its puerile, snide scribblings entertaining, or remotely (as in the distance from here to Betelgeuse) amusing. Perhaps he will accuse me of having a sense-of-humour bypass (not true: I find Jeremy Hardy, for instance, intensely side-splitting – although deeply intelligent…); but I found this month’s Letter from abroad both insulting (particularly to all other Scots – excluding Frankie Boyle, perhaps) and demeaning; and wholly appalling and insulting as a portrayal of Tysoe being equivalent to an eighteenth-century, overly-privileged (meaning sneering down your gout-ridden nose at people who aren’t like you; don’t have your health or wealth; or your nasty, patriarchal, patronizing attitude to people not of your ilk, sex, colour or brainlessness) Royston Vasey.

What worries me even more is that such awful garbage really does appeal to villagers: and that I am therefore in a decent (probably classed as a limp-wristed, liberal, left-wing, lesbian-hugging, Guardian-reading, heart-on-sleeve-wearing, fox-loving – all of which I am proud to be…) but tiny minority: which has suddenly woken up in the insensitive nightmare of a place that is a village in a real-life Little Britain.

Perhaps Nadhim Zahawi – as our most famous resident – should also be worried: not just that he’s also “from abroad”; and not that we’re all going to vote sensibly for the Green Party (or perhaps even Labour: in a tactical attempt to emerge from austerity); but that we’re slithering, as a representative part of his constituency, quickly even more down to the right: and will, as a result, be backing a member of Nigel Farage’s ragtag bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly” as M(C)P in the upcoming General Election?

I sincerely hope not. Otherwise, as someone who is disabled, I might find myself banned from driving. Not a good position to be in, in such rural isolation.

No doubt, as a result of this post, I shall be the subject (not that I care) of cliché-bound derision and yet more ignorant, dribbling prejudice in next month’s column – perhaps labelled as a “scrounger”; perhaps even described as a “cripple” (a word, of course, which I am allowed to use: but you are not – unless, of course, you are also one: in which case I will be happy to spend my underserved benefit on buying you more fags and booze, so we can kill ourselves slowly together slobbing in front of your ninety-two-inch plasma behind closed curtains; only, though, of course, after standing in the queue in poor Bart’s again, behind a string of other obnoxious twerps who think their every bigoted utterance worthy of sharing, and even being committed to print)?

Feel free to publish: but don’t be surprised to be damned instantly, and laughed at – rather than with – for being both utterly despicable and inane, and demonstrably absurd and ridiculous. Je suis Charlie. Je suis Ahmed. Je suis Juif. Je suis Policier. Je suis Bard. Je suis Disgusted of Upper Tysoe.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

You say offsetting; I say upsetting… (12A)

I have written before about the derisory gesture, made by Gladman Developments, to assuage (or even compensate for – and no, this is not the time or place to discuss Eric Pickles’ continuing dilution of Section 106 powers: yet another brick in the wall…) our concerns about the wiping-out of hundreds of years of our cherished heritage, with an offer of “public open space” – meaning, really, of course, that they are going to take a large field, and transform it into a pond; a couple of swings; and some “lumps and bumps” (the miniaturization of ridge-and-furrow…?). “Honey, I shrunk the meads.” (Sorry, it’s the best I could do. Although there’s probably also a joke in here comparing pitch-and-putt courses to St Andrews, given the prevalence of windmills in such places.)

And, of course, this plan is just one of the modern ‘remedies’ (and, yes, I am writing this with my ‘sardonic’ face on) that make up ‘biodiversity offsetting’: as if planting a couple of new bushes… (“plant a tree instead of seventy-three”) – or even scooping up all the ickle bunnikins and the itsy-bitsy newties (which we’re not supposed to give a shit about in the race for progress) in a bulldozer’s craw, and dumping them… – a couple of miles away: where the habitat is completely different; the topography completely alien; there are no badger setts next door; or copses of trees; no ancient hedgerows; and, ooh, look, a completely unbridgeable stream, completely full of steaming sewage… (a synecdoche of this Government’s environmental policies and attitudes) – will somehow make things better.

According to the weasel words of the NPPF, paragraph 118:

Where an adverse effect on the site’s notified special interest features is likely, an exception should only be made where the benefits of the development, at this site, clearly outweigh… the impacts that it is likely to have on the features of the site…

…but that, to my simple mind, could mean anything. It’s no different to using the word ‘sustainable’ (i.e. in its barefaced capitalist sense), when what you really mean is ‘profitable’.

To put it another way: just imagine, if, one night, some huge unfriendly giant picks you from your bed – however gingerly (although I imagine more Roald Dahl-style) – and, instead of “gobbling up” this particular “human bean” – plonks you down, from a great height, into the middle of a Scottish glen; the top of a Lakeland fell; deep in the Sahara; or at the North Pole…. I don’t think it would have a great “outcome” (never mind “measurable”), do you? “Two rights don’t make a left.”

And, even if you somehow manage the long trek back home, and can then locate the site of your former glory, you will find that you didn’t actually have a home any longer. Any trace of it has been obliterated by someone plonking a ruddy big factory (for living?) in its place: spewing out all sorts of noxious rubbish; and anything natural has been thoroughly concreted over. All that is left as refuge is the little forgotten hedgehog house that used to hide in a far corner of your back garden, covered in several years’ leafmould, lying cracked, on its side. Even the tiny patch of ground where there is now substitute astroturf has been churned to hell – such giant-size make-up being slapped ingloriously over tonnes of wanton rubble (hence, no doubt, those phrenologic “lumps and bumps” Gladman seem so darned proud of).

Not nice – is it?

Well, now, “biodiversity offsetting” has a new, technical, sibling – “mitigation translocation” – which, I suppose, is meant to make us all feel better, all warm inside, in a sort of science-y, tech-y way; without, again, understanding its definition or implications. But, to me it’s really just the the same ugly child, rechristened: no different to renaming that thing rusting away in your shed a “horticultural excavation apparatus”. It doesn’t truly make it any more efficient – or even less rusty. (Go and get some oil out, now; and give the thing the love it deserves. No, not your other half… – the blummin’ spade.)

And, guess what – it doesn’t work! “The relocation of animals to make way for land development rarely succeeds and could be driving some species towards extinction….” What a complete and utter surprise. I am truly shocked. (Sorry, my mask slipped: revealing my increasingly habitual ‘bitterly-sarcastic-where-the-fuck-did-common-sense-disappear-to’ rictus grimace. In fact, I appear to have morphed into the bastardized lovechild of my hero George Monbiot, and Al Murray’s Pub Landlord. Apologies to both.)

As the “sixth mass extinction” accelerates down the ten-lane motorway of doom; and as the fog of self-defeating stupidity grows ever thicker; how many more defenceless creatures will we notch up on the crumbling bedpost of humanity? How many more triumphal tally stickers (yes, really) of thoughtlessly slaughtered trophies will we attach to the flanks of our machines of mess and mass destruction… before we realize it’s not just too late – we should have stopped being so bloody arrogant, as a species, centuries ago?

Never mind. At this rate, it won’t be long until we drive ourselves out of existence – a good thing for what’s left of Gaia, hopefully… – and Tysoe reverts to its Jurassic past. (Huzzah! Bring back the dinosaurs!) Sorry for that rude interruption. What I meant to say was… if Cameron wins in May, will the last person to leave the planet please turn out the lights?

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills…

Betwix’ thi ’ills, s’ bleak an’ barren,
Lies a little town, bi the name o’ Darren.

For most of the first forty years of my life, I lived on the western edge of the Pennines: cradled by tall hills and rugged moorland; and for the latter half of that period, made my home on the edge of a small industrial town, whose low centre lies 172 metres above sea level; and whose most famous landmark – itself 26 metres high – stands on the “bleak an’ barren” (but utterly beautiful) moors 372 metres above the Lancashire coastline: with Blackpool Tower visible, nearly thirty miles away, on a clear day.

If you can see the tower, it’s going to rain.
If you can’t, it’s raining.

I therefore feel utterly at home when the terrain huddles around me – although this does not mean (especially as my legs grow older) that I need to be climbing; just that the altitude needs to be such that I know, even with my eyes closed (although that would just be plain silly, when there are so many delights to soak in…), I am not in the lowlands or the flatlands of our country’s varied topography.

Over the weekend, I therefore found myself driving through freshly-fallen snow and thick fog, as the sun rose – clearing the hilltops; but leaving the deep hollows in-between filled with thick strands of cottonwool – with an inexorable desire to don my walking boots, and retrace some familiar steps from that earlier existence. From the single set of tracks, and lone 4x4 sitting in the pristine, bright crispness, it was obvious that this would also be the peaceable experience I hankered after: complementing my memories with refreshing vistas (of the sort, I’m afraid, that you can only find many miles north of Tysoe…).

It’s not a long walk (about two-and-a-half miles) around Turton and Entwistle Reservoir – formed by what was the tallest dam (33 metres) in Britain, when it was constructed in 1832 – even when it’s cold enough to leave it partially frozen; and, on a less treacherous day (and without other commitments), I would have carried on around its lower sibling, Wayoh Reservoir, stopping for refreshments (and warmth) at the welcoming Strawbury Duck pub, right by Entwistle railway station; and which is therefore most easily accessed by train (especially tempting if you travel from the north through the remarkable over-a-mile long Sough Tunnel – the (debatable) source of a very local saying, which basically translates as “on the road to nowhere”).

When the fog cleared (before returning, and creeping slowly and surreptitiously across the valley), an almost Alpine landscape revealed itself: flecked with white, and mirrored perfectly under a crystal-blue sky. It therefore took me nearly two hours to complete the circuit: stopping both to admire and to capture the coolness, the calmness, the quietness and restfulness that was the perfect panacea for anyone’s troubles; my only companions being the tits, robins, blackbirds, ducks, gulls and herons scratching, digging and diving for sustenance.

I so love Tysoe; but I also, occasionally, miss the hills of the north (and usually more, the closer they are – approaching or departing): rejoicing in their rugged majesty; their snowcapped peaks; as well as the challenge they can present, when in the mood. They reward my efforts with a calm and a presence that I can find nowhere else. I will be back….

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows downstream and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The only way is ethics…

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

Being an atheist – although not, for goodness’ sake, an evangelical one: who treats such a (dis)belief as an oxymoronic quasi religion (as per DIY) – re-reading the Ten Commandments skit that I posted the other day made me wonder if there were actually any noetic equivalents that could make sense, signify something, to someone like myself: who spends a great deal of his time (for various reasons) simply thinking – but not thinking simply… – just not of any God.

I did find quite a few purported examples online: some self-contradicting; some quite sensible; and some that had arrived from a similar investigation of the self.

And then I realized – d’oh! – especially as I only stated recently that “I have never… been willing to hold my tongue, and simply obey unquestionable orders” (a Bardic ‘commandment’ if ever there was…) – it was highly unlikely, even if I found precepts that made sense to me (as many of those I discovered above did), that I would want to live my life by anything other than my internal moral compass (which probably stems from good parenting and a life trying, hungrily, to understand…) – certainly not by being told what to do, and how. As someone once said – although I don’t know who – “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.” (I shall come back to this in a short while.)

Having said all that, I do have a soft spot for Bertrand Russell and his A Liberal Decalogue – “not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it” –

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

– but that may simply be because of his pithy and erudite way with words, and an equivalence of purpose. (I think the marvellous Will Self may be posited as today’s homologue.) They could, however, quite readily form the basis of the principles governing the production of this blog, and therefore my public persona. If nothing else, I want other people to question, to think – and maybe about things they wouldn’t have, otherwise (even reevaluating things that continually stare them in the face…) – when they read my words.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell: Mortals and Others

Strangely enough, although Russell puts one of my true guiding principles (one of the principal points on “my internal moral compass”, if you will) at the top of his list – “Do not feel absolutely certain of anything” (captured and expressed beautifully in Forbidden Colours by David Sylvian, as “I’ll go walking in circles While doubting the very ground beneath me Trying to show unquestioning faith in everything” – a mantra I often find myself repeating…) – Russell’s oft-perceived arrogance (or simply the fact that these are adjuncts to the originals…) means that he neglects (or reasonably excludes) its counterpart: probably best expressed in the wisdom of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s wonderful, if-you-only-ever-read-one-work-of-fiction-read-this-one, To Kill a Mockingbird

First of all… if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

You could say, of course – as indeed did George McGovern – that such “Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’”; and that many of our laws (both internally and externally administered) have such scriptural origins – particularly this ‘Golden Rule’ or “ethic of reciprocity” – which can be found at the core of many (if not most) faiths and philosophies. But, in truth – to me – this only confirms that such sacred writings have at their hearts definitions of what it is to be ‘good’: a distillation of learned (collective) wisdom and experience (if not our innate altruistic tendencies) that have been encapsulated simply to try and ensure that we all get along.

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so.
– Bertrand Russell: ABC of Relativity

One of the reasons that this hasn’t led to an ideal, peaceful, egalitarian world (yet) – as represented, say, by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek utopia – is that some people are born without a capacity for empathy; or have to work harder at developing empathy than others (see here for a meaningful introduction to mirror neurons – especially in relation to autism and theory of mind). And, therefore – even though not everyone accepts that empathy is “a reliable way of doing good” – many (including me) believe it is so key to our existence that it is worth such never-ending hard work; or that it is so crucial to business success, that it can (and should) also be developed corporately – despite the disproportionate number of psychopathic CEOs; and the impression that, to be successful in (modern) government, empathy is actually the last thing you want (which is probably why we’re in such a confounded mess…).

The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large. They find themselves born into a certain place in society, and they accept what each day brings forth, without any effort of thought beyond what the immediate present requires. Almost as instinctively as the beasts of the field, they seek the satisfaction of the needs of the moment, without much forethought, and without considering that by sufficient effort the whole conditions of their lives could be changed.
– Bertrand Russell: Proposed Roads to Freedom

Of course, you might find, once your feet are in someone-else’s shoes, that they don’t fit, that what you experience is a deep discomfort, or even pain – a feeling which is brought on by your “own condition”; or, more likely, the shock of a new set of beliefs which are contrary to all you hold dear and true. So how do you then decide which ideology is more legitimate? To whose laws do you refer? Or is it obvious which doctrines are good or bad? (There’s a good reason Bertrand Russell is a famous philosopher, and I am not: although his views on ethics continued to evolve throughout his life.) As a ‘fan’ of both ‘rationalist’ Socrates and ‘sentimentalist’ Hume, I personally agree that “emotion and reason both play critical roles in moral judgment” – but that probably just confirms my own prejudice that both of the two cultures of humanities and sciences are equally valid; and should get together over a pint more frequently.

In silence, an act is an act is an act. Verbalized and discussed, it becomes an ethical problem…
– Aldous Huxley: The Genius And The Goddess

However, in stating this, rather than reaching any sort of conclusion, I seem to have done whatever is the opposite of digging myself into a hole, or painting myself into a corner – opening a can of worms…? – in that I started writing about something particular (and small), and ended up writing about something all-encompassing (and therefore huge, or even infinite). I suppose there is a parallel, though, to be drawn here between those (subjective) rules defined by man, and those (objective) brought about through nature (or even God: should you wish, and have, or believe in, one…) – which I think just about takes me back to where I started.

What do you think…?

The world that I should wish to see is one where emotions are strong but not destructive, and where, because they are acknowledged, they lead to no deception either of oneself or of others. Such a world would include love and friendship and the pursuit of art and knowledge.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Ooh, ooh, my ears are alight…

True satire is not just posturing, in a cosily collusive middle-class milieu, as “anti-establishment”. It is freedom laughing in the face of tyranny. That takes courage of an order demonstrated by the assassinated journalists at Charlie Hebdo, whose slain editor simply stated that he would rather die than “live like a rat”.
– Hugh Hetherington: The Guardian

Free speech comes at a price; it even costs human lives. The bottom line for an open and free democracy seems to me to be that I have to accept that someone, somewhere, sooner or later, will say something that offends me. But I have to live with my feelings, and not assuage them in any violent way at all. In fact, we can all have a “right” to cause offence, if we do not also demand the “right” to take offence too. It is likely that some of those who reject this principle, whatever their religion, or lack of it, will continue to make martyrs of those who practise it.
– Fr Alec Mitchell: The Guardian

Editor’s note
This morning, I received an email purporting to be from a certain Charlie Tyso, and his esteemed colleague Xavier O’Duss. I here quote it in full, for your edification and, I hope, amusement…

And it came to pass on the third day in the evening, at the seventh hour, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick clod upon the hill, and the voice of the strumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that were in the House of Words trembled. And Supposes brought forth the people out of the House to meet with the Great Lord Sod, who must be obeyed in all things; and they stood at the nether part of the hill, in the Parish of Tysoe. And the Hill of Tysoe was altogether in a smoke, because the Great Lord descended from His moated mansion upon it in a rusting diesel 4x4: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a fire of damp, unseasoned logs, and the whole hill quaked greatly.

And when the voice of the strumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Supposes spake, and Sod answered him by an angry voice. And the Great Lord Sod graced the mass of people with his almighty presence, coming down upon the Hill of Tysoe, on the top of the hill; and the Great Lord cast his shadow over Supposes and summoned him up to the top of the hill; and Supposes went up. And for Supposes there was much going up, and much going down: because the Great Lord is obeyed in all His contrivances.

And the Great Lord said unto Supposes, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the True Plan to gaze on its reality, and many of them get pissed off thusly: Give them in its stead this Tablet of Sand, which showeth well my Word and its Meaning, even though it appeareth as the Word of Supposes, all guised as the Law of the Land: And let the parish priests also, which dare to approach near to the Great Lord, pacify themselves, lest the Great Lord break forth wind upon them. And Supposes said unto the Great Lord, The poor mass of people, thy humble and obedient servants, cannot come up to the Hill of Tysoe: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the hill, and protect it from wind power.

And the Great Lord said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and thy servants; those who trade with thee: the candlestick-maker, who stands high with his candles but sheds but little light; and the baker, who produceth humble pies of puff pastry and filled with fluff. But let not the parish priests and the mass of people break through to come up unto the Great Lord, lest it be to dance at His bidding of a summer’s day in the grounds of his moated mansion. So Supposes went down unto the people, and waffled unto them. And they considered that they saw much light in his endless words; and believed those words bright, and gave much praise: although, verily, the words were dull and hollow to their simple minds.

And Sod spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy Sod, who knoweth everything, which have brought thee out of the land of Braveheart, out of the house of porridge, and into the mire at the foot of the hill, where floods and pestilence cometh at my whim. Thou shalt have no other Lords before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven bloggage, or any criticism of any thing that is in the Tablet above, or that is in the footnotes beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (even when it rises above the earth): Thou shalt not bow down thyself to mine enemy of mine own making that is Braveheart, nor serve the critic that is but Bardolatry, nor yet even the parish priests: For I the Lord thy Sod am a jealous Sod, visiting the iniquity of all that is written in the Tablet of Sand upon the common mass of people unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing insincerity unto the two or three of them that can abide me, and keep my suggestions.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy Sod in vain; for the Great Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain. Remember the Tablet of Sand, to keep all that is written therein holey, for it ticketh all the boxes that be in the land: And disavow all that might be espied within any True Plan, lest it bear the false witness of base common people. Six months shalt thou cheweth upon the Tablet of Sand, and be all thy flummoxed at its meaning: But the seventh month is the Referendum of the Great Lord: In it thou shalt not vote “No”, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; nor thy badger: For in six months the Great Lord manufactureth great policies and rules, through His servant Supposes, as the Tablet of Sand, and all that in it is (and then buggered off to the pub in his 4x4: wherefore the Great Lord blessed the pub, and drained it dry as the sand from which the Tablet was made).

Honour thy compost bin and thy rainwater butt: that thy days may be long upon the New Tysoe which the Great Lord giveth thee, and all the lands therein which He shall order according to His Word that is a fathomless Algorithm. Thou shalt not question. Thou shalt not commit bloggery. Thou shalt not oppose. Thou shalt not bear witness against the Tablet of Sand. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ironstone cottage. Thou shalt not query thy Supposes’ spreadsheets, nor his solar panels, nor his checklists, nor his calculations, nor his assets, nor any thing that is thy Supposes’, or his servants the candlestick-maker and the baker and all that they serve and that serve unto them. Thy shalt build thy noddy-houses out of stone, and render them identical, as unto ticky-tacky, and exceeding ugly unto the eyes of the Bard.

And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the strumpet, and the hill smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Supposes, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not the Great Lord Sod speak bollocks with us, lest we perish of tedium. And Supposes said unto the people, Fear not: for Sod is come to prove to you the Tablet of Sand is great, and that His fear of censure may be wiped from your trembling faces, that ye oppose not. And the people stood afar off, and Supposes drew near unto the thick darkness where the Great Lord was. And the Great Lord saw that it was good, and saw that the Bravehearts and Bards that slithered upon the face of the earth were as fork-tongued serpents: creatures crafted by the very claws of Beelzebub.

But, lo, even as he understandeth them not, the Great Lord thought mightily that he could smite them from the height of His New Tysoe which bore the yester imprint of His great boot; and trample the serpents’ tongues before and beneath. But he was mistaken sorely. For, verily I say unto thee, he had no true power within or without, except that which the mass of people could remove from him in the twinkling of an iPhone, obliterating the very ground beneath His boot. And the serpents’ words were not as He opined; nor even were they serpents, but mere twine; and their words mere leaves of multitudinous colours, blowing in the winter wind. And when they saw this, the people trembled, and quaked, and spoke many tongues of Babel and Stratfordonavondistrictcouncil.

And then the people, renewed with great hope, girded their loins with vast mornings of coffee, dunkings of biscuit, ravings of music, and growing rumblings of mutiny throughout the parish and in all the places thereof that were increasingly hidden from the Great Lord. And thence the people saw a yet brighter light and rose up with joy, and with it manufactured the True Plan.
At this, the Great Lord raged, giving off a furious roaring as big as to a whining mouse. But the people and the parish priests had grown deaf and blind to the Great Lord Sod. And when the people looketh past the smoke, and behind the glass of looking, that kept shrouded so much and yet so little, the Great Lord was no more to be set eyes upon, verily nevermore, until the end of time. And, in the place of the Tablet of Sand, which crumbleth and vanisheth as it shifteth and moveth with the desert wind, came forth the True Plan which they had made, and bound with the golden twines of Veracity and Desire. And it was good; and truly had concrete meaning unto them all, and even to their neighbours, and the strangers within the parish and without. And the mass of people rejoiced greatly for seven days and seven nights; and went forth sustainably: lo, unto the fifth generation, and the sixth, and for evermore.

Here endeth the lesson. Clays be to Sod. Amen.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The only way in the village…

Politeness is the poison of collaboration.

It probably feels, at the moment, reading this blog, that – especially with regards to the nascent Neighbourhood Plan – I’m behaving like a rabid dog with an exhausted, broken bone, devoid of all taste, clenched between my yellowing fangs. But this is because, when I believe in something or someone, I won’t, and don’t, let go – not until my objectives are achieved.

I have never really conformed with the throng; nor its expectations of me. Neither have I been willing to hold my tongue, and simply obey unquestionable orders; or have respect for unearned authority and important titles (which I suppose makes me a bit of a ragged trousered anarchist; and I know makes me a lot of a pain in the asinine…). And these attitudes are amplified when it is such a strong, sincere, unshakeable belief that drives me: in this case, that our three hamlets – as a conglomeration of the wisdom and experience of all their residents, past and present – are extremely special; and will remain so, if all of those now living here are allowed to play a starring rôle in its future – “a sustainable and successful future, for a place which is clearly very special to the people who live and work there.”

But I am also convinced (and concerned) that, if such representation is merely paid lip-service to, and we are relegated to unidentifiable extras, just making up numbers in blurry, background crowd scenes, the outlook will not be anywhere near as rosy: as it will be governed (dictated) by the limited ideas and agendas of a very tiny minority, with no regard for identity, individualism, innovation, community, or collaboration (those qualities that have so moulded the generous spirit of the place we live in and cherish – and for a very long time…).

If people work together in an open way with porous boundaries – that is, if they listen to each other and really talk to each other – then they are bound to trade ideas that are mutual to each other and be influenced by each other. That mutual influence and open system of working creates collaboration.

Even if, as at the moment, there are many of us in the parish that feel our opinions, our needs and desires, are being ignored by those who – with a similar (but ill-founded, unjustified and amoral) stubbornness – refuse to listen (and take note(s)): I know there will come a time when we can, should, indeed must, stand up and be counted. (Not that I’m saying you should wait until then….) After all, the process that has currently been (in my ever so ’umble opinion) taken hostage – however much cynicism you may hold for the Government’s ‘big society’ gibberish, and its laughable attitude to localism – that of Neighbourhood Planning – actually has quite a lot of democracy built into it.

And I’m not just talking about the referendum that must take place in the parish before the Neighbourhood Plan comes into force… –

The draft plans and orders must pass an independent check (providing, of course, that Stratford-on-Avon District Council recommends that the plan should go forward to this “examination stage”). If they pass the independent check, they must then be put to a local referendum. If the majority of those who vote are in favour the local planning authority must adopt the plan….

But this “stage” is, thankfully, not just some dry, bureaucratic process (and we will all be brightly lit up and delineated by its footlights). Although the Neighbourhood Plan “must have regard to national policies and conform to local strategic policies”, the examination also provides an opportunity for all concerned to submit their opinions, objections, support… – similar to the way that you can comment on any application for planning permission (which the Neighbourhood Plan sort of is – just on a grander scale) – within a defined six-week period.

Generally examinations will be by written representations rather than by public hearing. However, the examiner can call a public hearing on two grounds:
  • To examine a key issue in more depth; or
  • To ensure a person has a fair chance to put a case forward.
If there is a public hearing, the examiner will decide the format. For example, how questions are to be posed to another individual and the time allowed for questioning. All the questioning will be done by the examiner. The cost of holding a public hearing remains the responsibility of [the council].

In August 2013, the fourth neighbourhood plan – Tattenhall and District’s – was ‘passed’ with the scrutiny of such an examiner – whose report contains the following:

I was informed during the Hearing of the extent of the significant and sustained collaborative working between the Council and the Neighbourhood Plan-makers. Cheshire West and Chester Council held membership of the Steering Group established by the Parish Council and I note that the officer support this provided “went over and above the call of duty” and was of huge benefit to the Neighbourhood Plan. I consider this collaborative approach to be exemplary. It sets a helpful precedent for other neighbourhood plan-makers. Such effective joint working is to the great benefit of plan-making and is to be welcomed.

Surely that, as well as being common-sense, this is the best practice we should be following?

Later on, the examiner describes how that Neighbourhood Plan was put together, stating that…

Building effective community engagement into the plan-making process encourages public participation and raises awareness and understanding of the plan’s scope and limitations.
     Robust, sustained and comprehensive public consultation can provide the foundations for a successful neighbourhood plan. It forms part of the evidence base. Successful consultation can also create a sense of public ownership, achieve consensus and provide the foundations for a successful ‘Yes’ vote at Referendum….
     Commencing in Summer 2011, the Neighbourhood Plan underwent several stages of consultation, prior to the formal, publicity stage, six week consultation period (3 June 2013 to 19 July). These can be broken down into:
  • Raising awareness (Summer 2011)
  • Pre-vision consultation (Autumn 2011)
  • Vision and objectives consultation (Summer 2012)
  • Draft neighbourhood plan consultation (Winter 2012)
I have considered the various stages of consultation undertaken prior to and during preparation of the Neighbourhood Plan, with particular regard to content, openness and transparency.

…and it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling that the points I keep making about an ideal form of collaboration are both practicable and – more fundamentally – deemed important (if not necessary) by those we have to legally satisfy, if our Neighbourhood Plan is to have meaning and standing.

Public Consultation: Raising Awareness
I note that the Parish Council and Neighbourhood Planning Steering Group attended a number of public events to raise awareness of the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan. People were given the opportunity to show where they lived and provide comments about the area. I find that the wide range of events – including a Beer Festival and a Garden Fete – provided for significant advanced publicity and the approach encouraged public involvement from an early stage.

Public Consultation: Pre-Vision
Five public open meetings were held at three venues…. This provided the opportunity for people to attend meetings in different parts of the Parish, as well as providing for more than one opportunity to attend.
     The associated publicity was comprehensive, with invitations sent to every household and widespread public notices. Notably, the invitations included a summary about neighbourhood planning, together with general information about the Parish. I consider that this enabled people to attend the meetings on an informed basis and provided an advanced starting point, thus helping make the most of the meeting time available.
     Discussion at the meetings was focused around questions relating to what people liked and disliked about the area and how, or whether, they would like to see the area evolve, change and/or improve in the future….
     Young people, especially teenagers, can be hard to engage in the planning process. The Parish Council and Steering Group recognised and sought to address this by adopting a highly innovative approach. They hosted a ‘rave,’ with attendees required to fill in a questionnaire prior to entry. The rave was very well attended and… demonstrated the pro-active approach and significant efforts made by the Parish Council and Steering Group to go beyond the legislative requirements for public consultation….
     The scale of response demonstrates the interest in and success of this stage of the consultation. In this way, the results of the consultation provided a significant input into and helped steer the content of, the draft Neighbourhood Plan, providing compelling evidence of its community-driven foundations.

Public Consultation: Draft Neighbourhood Plan
A copy of the draft Neighbourhood Plan was issued to every household in the Parish and to businesses…. Five neighbouring Parish Councils were also provided with copies and the draft Neighbourhood Plan was available to view on the Parish Council website. Over one hundred formal responses to the draft Neighbourhood Plan were received. The Parish Council and Steering Group demonstrated how these were taken into account to improve the form, content and structure of the Neighbourhood Plan. Taking this and all of the previous stages into account, there is plenty of evidence to show that the consultation process was comprehensive and conducted in an open and transparent manner from start to finish, with lots of opportunities for engagement, involvement and feedback.

Public Consultation: Range and Type of Consultees
Effective public consultation should encourage the views of as wide a range of people affected by the proposals as possible. In this regard, it was appropriate for consultation on the Neighbourhood Plan to focus on people living within the neighbourhood area. Tattenhall and District Parish Council has demonstrated that it did as much as it reasonably could to raise local awareness and to encourage people to get involved in the plan-making process. There is evidence that, as well as the views of local residents, input has been encouraged, from the earliest stage, from other interested parties including local businesses. There is no evidence of the Parish Council precluding anyone from the consultation process. The views of younger people, especially harder to reach groups, were actively sought. The involvement of the local school and the successful ‘rave’ were highly commendable approaches to community engagement and provide good examples for other neighbourhood planning groups to consider. It is apparent that the Parish Council and Steering Group went to a lot of effort to encourage participation in public consultation from a wide range of people, to the overall benefit of the Neighbourhood Plan.

Public Consultation – Summary
Given its fundamental importance to neighbourhood planning, I have scrutinised the public consultation process. There is no evidence of any dissatisfaction with the consultation process throughout the two year plan-making period. I am satisfied that the Neighbourhood Plan not only meets its statutory obligations, but exceeds them. Consequently, the Neighbourhood Plan is a community-driven document demonstrates an excellent approach to public consultation in neighbourhood planning.

I really don’t know what else to say… – except that I truly believe that this is just about the only way an area can – should – successfully develop a successful Neighbourhood Plan. Please, Tysoe, take note. For all our sakes.

Breaking good
I have been told, by Mike ‘Tew’ Sanderson, that the planning inspector in charge of the Gladman inquiry has put back his decision date, whilst he reviews the latest five-year housing supply report from Stratford-on-Avon District Council. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Fly me to the moon…

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
– William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

In yesterday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash asks “What is Britain?” – particularly with regards to the structure of government, as defined by the forthcoming General Election (the willy waving of which already bores me…). He writes that “A serious response must involve devolving power, not just sideways but also downwards, to English local government.” But I would go one step further – in an attempt to bring real meaning and purpose to the currently hollowed-out, insincere concept of localism – and continue that devolution to village level: strengthening the remit (and budget) of the Parish Council; and introducing more accessible and democratic processes for making the decisions that affect only those who live here.

Obviously there has to be a flow of communication (information and legislation) both up and down the levels of legislature – “European, federal (British), constituent nation (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), regional, city, local” – to and from the parish; but we are not the same as other villages (however the current strata of government try to lump us into meaningless classifications such as “local service village”). Our relationships – geographical, personal, organizational, environmental, social… – are also different: in the way that no two people are alike, however many surface characteristics they may share.

So the question I would ask is “What is Tysoe?”; and the only people who can answer this, fully, are those who live here – although it is also fundamental that this question be asked of our nearest and dearest: our neighbouring villages; the next layer up in this devolved form of government; those who we may work for; and the businesses that provide us with services, or are based within the parish.

And there is only one way of discovering the reality, the truth – both objective and subjective (otherwise, we might as well just be lumped in with other similar locales) – and that is to go out and ask. You cannot expect people simply to come flocking to you, just because you have been given some form or remit of power – you have to govern collegiately, govern by walking around: actively asking; actively listening; bouncing ideas around, and letting others add to them, criticize them, praise them, ridicule them. After all, your constituents should be your greatest asset – you wouldn’t be there without them (or not for long, anyway).

If you hide behind a desk – or even a customer service counter – people will only come to you with their (and maybe your) problems; or when they are in trouble and need your help (if they believe you can…). If you act as if you know better than they do, and have all the answers, without (valuing) their input, they may not even think about dragging themselves in your direction: and you will never learn what they think of you and your patronizing form of power. Only if you share your authority (however elected) with them, trust them, offer them transparent decision-making, will you know; and it will not come as a surprise, next time they have the opportunity (presuming you haven’t truncated their rights) to choose who will next have your power, that they do not choose you.

You can probably see where I’m going with this – although my thoughts could also apply to all the higher levels of administration, of course… – especially following my recent post on the strange definition of “consultation” currently being practised by those producing the Neighbourhood Plan. This time, though, I was inspired to put stubby index fingers to keyboard (as well as croaky voice to microphone) by the sage comment (of which the following is an edited version) left on my freeform response to the original survey – not just to criticize (unless you take that in its wider, more positive, more constructive definition of simply observing and analyzing), but to demonstrate an alternative future – a third way, even – coloured by my experience of many years of finessing corporate (internal, as well as external) communication.

Is it worth it, this Neighbourhood Plan? Is it worth the effort…?
     Probably not if it’s dull, tedious hard work. Probably not, if it’s just to satisfy a remote government whim, or a local government box ticking exercise, or to indulge a few individuals’ theories. Probably not if we leave it to a few people wearily going through the motions of what they think should be done. Probably not if no-one asks you for your ideas, or listens when you offer them. Probably not if it is just another argument about what should be built here, or there, and everybody knows that ‘the planning department’ will decide anyway, whoever ‘the planning department’ is. Probably not if it doesn’t inspire us, however worthy.
     On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t even have to be the Neighbourhood Plan. It could simply be OUR plan. A plan for Tysoe.
     It could be a plan for the village as we want it to be; how we want to be in it; what we want to keep and what to change; how we would look after ourselves and each other; how we could adapt it to the world around us; how we could feel we belong to it; how we could make it a wonderful place to grow up, and grow old in; how it could look, and work for us.
     It could be a plan that could outlive the political and economic winds that blow around us. It could be sensitive to, but not dependent on others – on officials and policies and obscure irrelevant impractical things that might otherwise be imposed on us. It could be a plan for our village to enable it to survive and thrive even in troubled times.
     It could be a plan that we would all enjoy playing our part in creating. It could be a plan of which we are all proud. It could be a plan created by grownups and children alike, a game for the whole family to play. It could be a plan made by fully sentient human beings, with extraordinary capabilities, and loads of common sense. It could be a model of how people can work together for a common cause.
     Is it worth it? I think so.
     Do we have the will? Dig a bit deeper and I’m sure we will find it, bursting to get out.
     Can we overcome the obstacles? No doubt, if we are strong and resolute.
     Is it possible? Yes.
     Now, I wonder what all that could look and feel like? Let’s start here.
     It’s not that hard. A lot easier than waking up tomorrow and it’s all gone. That would be really hard.

I find this utterly inspirational. It really defines what a Neighbourhood Plan could and should be – far removed from the “time- and money-consuming exercise: designed to keep us ‘plebs’ occupied” defined in the 2011 Localism Act: a definition which is at the root of our current woes (which you and I both need to get past before solutions are posited).

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

At the moment (and I could not attend last night’s meeting, because of my continuing ill-health; and, to be honest, cynically only expected more of the same – despite valid proddings and protestations from various parts of the parish; and despite the fact that my urge is to keep on doling out chunks of doubting benefit…), all we are getting (being given) are dribs and drabs of information that appear to be made up on the fly. There is no visible strategy; no detailed schedule of events that we are all privy to. Something this important (which could refer equally to the Plan, the parish, and its residents) requires regular updates that say “This is what is going to happen”, and when; and how well the schedule is being kept to, or if it needs revising. The parish should also have been asked how it would like the ‘consultation’ to take place. The Plan (as the anonymous poster above points out) is not one person’s, or one group’s, document – it belongs to (and is made by) every single resident.

I think we should be receiving detailed (at least) monthly bulletins (a blog, maybe?!), containing this sort of information. There should be regular (weekly, fortnightly, monthly?) surgeries, at times and places convenient to different sectors of our population’s needs. Ideally, the ‘street champions’ would have been given the chance to demonstrate more skills than simply leafleting: so that everyone really understands what is going on in a way that can be communicated with and by those villagers involved, as well, of course, with those who aren’t (or currently don’t feel themselves to be). As a villager, do you know/feel/believe that you can ask questions, or give input, and that the reply will be constructive? If we have little faith in the process, and the people pushing it forward, it is because they have so far demonstrated (consciously or subconsciously) that they have little faith in the outcome if they involve us too much.

If there were effective communication channels in place – and an effective communication strategy – we wouldn’t have been taken by surprise; and we would have known that the current draft of the Neighbourhood Plan was the first, not the last, chance for consultation; and that the Plan isn’t being rushed to the implied premature conclusion. Being told this after the fact, though, is way, way too late. Before last night, all we had been told was that there was a deadline of 15 January. How, therefore, were we supposed to know any different? Were we supposed to guess that we might have a second or third chance to offer our opinion? (Sorry, my crystal ball has suffered one of its frequent power outages.) And why number those chances, anyway? We should be (and I am sorry to keep banging on about this) continually involved: not just when the spirit moves; not just by saying anyone can attend a meeting – but in any way that anyone wants to be. “Tysoe: how would you like to be involved in your plan? When would you like to meet up, and where, and how?” For goodness’ sake, ask people what they want, and then bloody well give it to them. Don’t act like another arm of the establishment that has led to current voter apathy/powerlessness, and expect us to be grateful in return. All you will do is split us into raging, revolting peasants (Russell Brand-stylee) and the silent, peeved majority, who think anything vaguely political is a waste of their time.

Do you really know what the Plan’s purpose is? Do you agree with it? Or would you rather have something that meshes perfectly with all our area’s residents’ varied needs and wants – as described above? My guess is that the village (as I have said before) is survey- and plan-weary; and may think this is just being done to boost the egos of a few, rather than serve the many. Couch “the Plan’s purpose” in the terms of the above comment, and, soon, I predict, villagers will start to experience an emerging ownership, and feel properly involved; feel listened to – that this is something important and concrete that they must partake in, for the sake of Tysoe. At the moment, it just looks like a bureaucratic exercise, with the appeal of a dead slug garnished with bird droppings.

I don’t want to fill in a feedback form. Neither, I would guess, does anyone else. (They are only convenient for those issuing them.) This is too important to be a paper-shuffling exercise. It is personal; it is about our human futures, tightly tied in with the village’s future. It is not about bureaucracy. It is about people talking, discussing – shouting, if necessary – until their voices are hoarse, and they need a pint or three in the Peacock. I want to be listened to, appreciated, understood – my views, however individual, however off-the-wall, noted, incorporated, available for others to debate. I want an open – not closed – reiterative – not finite – honest – not obfuscated – collegiate – not selective – inclusive – not exclusive – process; one that belongs to us all, is participated in by us all… equally. What I want – what we need to succeed – is trust and transparency. Great bloody steaming dollops of both, please (and hold the slug).

During the last few days, it has emerged that the “initial” draft of the Plan had not been seen (vetted, edited, approved) by anyone than a very select few – not even most members of the Neighbourhood Plan group; and certainly not any of our Parish Councillors – before being circulated (although I have been told several times, by several people, that actually getting hold of a physical or digital copy is not as easy as I had thought…). This is ludicrous. And, although apparently democratic on the surface, to me it shows that those élite involved in producing it either thought that their own efforts didn’t need such policing; did not understand the consequences of not having defined editorial/production processes in place; or were trying to rush the thing through (confirmed by the similarly ludicrous response deadline we have been given).

This is neither “democratic” nor fair. If the Parish Council – who are ultimately responsible for the document – had reviewed it, they (instead of Keith Risk) could have pointed out the flaws in it before the midden hit the windmill.

As I have said before, the workings-out must be highly visible. If you go directly to a fait accompli, then people will assume, rightly or wrongly, that things are being hidden from them. Where is the correlation between what 43% of us said on our survey forms and the now circulating (like treacle through a straw) extremely rough (for content, but glossy in appearance: looking like a final) draft of suggested policy?

I feel, personally, as if I we are being treated like children: children who don’t know what’s good for them (in the way that David Cameron usually addresses ‘his’ electorate). That we’re too stupid to understand all this technical planning stuff: so we’re not going to be told, or given the chance to learn about it, and comment on it, and discuss its merits. This has probably not been done on purpose; but, without “having defined editorial/production processes”, and a broad selection of reviewers, it was bound to happen. Wouldn’t it have been far better to say “this is what we’re thinking of doing – what do you think?”

People, generally, want leadership that listens to them; not bossiness that hides away, secretly machinating like some rural version of the KGB. What we really need, therefore, is another Joseph Ashby – certainly not the Wizard of Oz, manipulating things with no substance from behind the curtain. You can’t make decisions unilaterally. If we had all been treated like adults, and communicated properly with, from day one, our expectations would be realistic, and we would know what was going on.

When people who have our future in their hands make a decision, then they should tell us that they are about to make it; and how; and why. Not afterwards. And they must ensure that the village is a stakeholder in that decision. This is how conspiracy theories emerge. People fill in gaps in the paucity of information to try and mend it; make sense of rupturing gaps in the process. They are not the failings of those who try to listen; but those who are not listening. Openness and honesty at the outset – even stating that there were some key processes that would need refining later: “We’ve never done this before” – would have been readily and willingly accepted, I am sure.

The Tories’ desire to take the country back to the 1930s is beginning to look tame, compared with the current assertions of feudalism within the village – risking taking us all back to the 1330s. (At least, I suppose, our fields of ridge-and-furrow would be intact.)

[I was tempted to apologize for my anger – but others I have discussed this with feel similarly disenfranchised (and perturbed). I started this blog because I love and cherish dearly this unique place my partner and I have found to spend the rest of our lives in: and therefore want to help protect it, and its residents, in any way I can, from deliberate or accidental harm (my main weapon of defence, being disabled, being the gift of articulacy). I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find “it’s all gone”. That would not only be “really hard”, it would be extremely painful. (And I have already known more pain in my life than many would know in ten of theirs.)]

So… why does the first draft look so like a final draft (even though there are gaping holes in it)? Perception is everything; and only a constant two-way flow of information will quash that. Communicating effectively is blummin’ hard work, though; and requires valued expertise. As I keep saying, everything I plea for should all have been communicated in advance. I understand that this is the first time the village has done a Neighbourhood Plan; but we’re not the first place to do one. Why have there not been presentations to the village from others that have? Have there been visits to other areas further along in the process? I doubt it. But, if there have, then they should have been publicised, and open to anyone vaguely interested in getting involved.

Having received only 43% of the residential surveys back; and not having a full set of business responses; instead of producing a glossy document, the Neighbourhood Plan group should have taken the time to interact with that missing majority – to find out why they didn’t respond/weren’t interested, and address this. It would have improved their standing in the village; would have shown they were listening as well as telling; and would almost certainly mean that we wouldn’t now be in the situation we are in.

Communication. Communication. Communication. It is at the centre of any successful organization; and lacking from those that fail.

This thing needs doing properly. I think the comment on my post, above, should be the manifesto (‘Manifestysoe’?!) that drives the Plan, drives the village. It could include all the things that the Parish Plan didn’t achieve. And, whatever its designation, it could be – as a Neighbourhood Plan is supposed to be (every five years) – a rolling document that captures the developing Zeitgeist and genius loci. It doesn’t need to be governed by external law. It can be the repository of all of Tysoe’s massive and deep wealth of knowledge, desires, needs and dreams – a sort of collegiate ‘Tyseaux Tapestry’ (or even Magna Carta) for the Internet age.

But this, above all – as wot the wise person wrote – requires imagination and graft. It also requires skill, leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge that wisdom can be found in the smallest and darkest of places. But, only by opening the process up to every single sentient thing that resides within the Parish boundaries, will that wisdom be found. It cannot be decided by kings in castles, lords in manors, monks scratching away at their parchments in ivory towers, separated from the seething, unruly masses by a moat of superiority. It needs an extremely personal touch – and, if necessary, walking around, getting mucky, wearing wellies: even talking to the farmers who steer the local agricultural-based economy: which, so far, hasn’t been given its central starring rôle in the Plan. It needs involvement, as well as hard work and cleverness. Intelligence that stems from without as well as within. This is a collegiate document, not one that is handed down from Mount Sinai, finalized, to be thoughtlessly obeyed. It requires your input to start it – which is partly what the comments section below is for; and what my email address is for. It also requires your input to ensure that it never ends.

We choose to produce a Plan for Tysoe and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Don’t leave me this way…

A couple of weeks ago, on 19 December 2014, Keith Risk – who, almost exactly a year ago, with his hard work, wisdom and great fortitude, led the village to its first ‘victory’ against rapacious developers Gladman – sent out a well-reasoned document to the village, concerned that the imminent deadline (15 January 2015) for responses to the first (and, it now appears, only) “draft of the consultation document which would form the framework for the Neighbourhood Plan for Tysoe… does not allow enough time…”. I have to agree. But my plea will be more emotive: as I will be trying to engage you.

From the beginning, the Neighbourhood Plan group (or whatever it is that they are calling themselves, this week), seems to have defined ‘consultation’ purely as telling us what they are doing, and telling us what to do. As I have said far too many times in my life: communication is a two-way process – as well as giving out information, you have to ensure that people listen and respond; are involved in the process; and understand – and merely sending out one survey, setting up a poorly-designed and -visited website, emailing a few residents, distributing infrequent leaflets, and holding a couple of ill-attended meetings, does not remotely fulfil such a definition. It does not “engage”.

Or, as Keith stated:

Without proper consultation and discussion with the village as a whole, the proposals and policies this [draft Neighbourhood Plan] recommends risk being undemocratic.
     There is no need for this. This is a small village. There are many occasions when views on our vision for the village: what it is, and how we want it to develop, with accompanying objectives, could be found and aired.
     In so far as these views are not yet known, despite a number of efforts, further time and imagination needs to be invested to attract them. It may be difficult. There may be understandable cynicism, scepticism and apathy. That does not need to, must not, prevent it from happening.
     Without such real effective consultation the Neighbourhood Plan (NP), when put to the vote in the village referendum, is seriously at risk of failing to reflect the core purpose: that it expresses the views and interests of the neighbourhood – the village as a whole.

My career – before I was forced to retire due to ill-health – was all about communication (and for some very large global companies, too…): so, when the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group was set up, I thought it essential that, for us to be successful, we communicated effectively. To that end, one of my first acts was to draft a communication strategy – which has obviously been consigned to the dustbin by those that followed.

For instance, I stressed that the group “should be… building relationships with (and between members of) our local communities, local representative bodies and officials, and any relevant special interest groups, etc. – including maintaining sound links with stakeholders and supporters” (e.g. residents). I see no evidence that this has been done. There appear to have been plenty of one-night stands; but no relationships built or developed, as such. And certainly no engagement.

I also wrote that…

…communication (inwards and outwards) keeps everyone in the village informed, and, hopefully, motivated; as well as providing continual opportunities for everyone in Tysoe, and the vicinity, to join in, and contribute ideas and suggestions – feeling valued, and knowing that they can comment easily (without retribution or criticism) on what we do. (In essence, this is about understanding that communication is actually all about community....) [Communication] should be planned, cyclical, and at the heart of… the activities of the Group.

Do you feel valued? Do you feel engaged? Do you feel at all involved in the development of the Neighbourhood Plan?

The next question is: Were you taken by surprise by the fact that, as Keith describes, “A proposal has been made to have… feedback and responses to the draft Consultation Document [completed] by 15th January 2015”? As it currently stands, therefore, the meeting to be held on Monday (5 January 2015) will be residents’ last chance to have any input into a document that will be a key part of their government for the next five years. (Well, unless, as with the Parish Plan and the Housing Needs Survey, it is rapidly superseded by a change of national Government or planning law.) As such, surely such an important meeting should have been organized by the Parish Council itself – and with a lot more notice: so that a lot more people could get involved?

Keith suggests “that this [date] is unnecessarily soon and unrealistic”; and recommends that a revised date, “of at least 3 months hence”, is agreed. Personally, I think six months is more realistic. Or even a year.

So why the rush?

Well, as demonstrated by the attempted hijacking of December’s Parish Council meeting, there are those – who appear to believe themselves to be in power – who also appear to have gotten it into their heads that having a completed Neighbourhood Plan will somehow defeat Gladman’s attack (especially if we involve that exemplar of generosity, kindness and sympathetic localism, Eric Pickles).

Personally, I cannot get my head around such a fantasy; and I also have trouble seeing any connection between the challenge to Gladman’s proposed development on Oxhill Road and the development of a planning document designed for the whole parish. Is that supposed connection, I wonder, prompted by the fact that the majority of the key players involved in the production of the Plan all live within spitting distance of Mr White’s field? Or am I becoming paranoid, and the victim of baseless conspiracy theories?

Trying to get my head around the real reason for the emerging emergency, I came across this document: which – as well as documenting the “Common Mistakes” the group has unwittingly fallen into making (“Only weak leaders think they need to instruct and to ignore the opinions of others”) – contains some pithy advice, including…

Organising and running community engagement… requires specialist skills. It is often done badly and too late due to the lack of such skills…. Specialist skills could either be provided by members of the community organisation producing the plan or could be provided by consultants or other external sources.

I also found this:

…it is anticipated that on average the [Neighbourhood Plan] process is likely to take around two years.

And yet, according to their own timeline, ours will have taken less than eleven months.

So why the rush?

Well, there isn’t really one, is there? All that appears to have been done is the minimum necessary, in the shortest time possible, in order to play to certain people’s high self-regard and solipsistic objectives. I honestly pity those – which will now include the majority of innocent villagers – caught in its fallout; and those who have put their heart and soul into helping develop something they believed was for the good of the village. There are so many ways that this could have been done so much better: including allowing time for people to actually learn and understand – and engage with – the whole process.

Back to Keith Risk, and the Background part of his emailed document – which is included here in full, as it says all that is needed to be said:

At time of writing the validity and timing of the Neighbourhood Plan process is in question.
  • Stratford District Council (SDC) has not completed its Core Strategy, upon which a Neighbourhood Plan significantly depends.
  • The draft Core Strategy as it currently exists is highly controversial. Key proposals do not have the full support of governing local political party officials. Planning Officers are severely under-resourced.
  • There is clear indication that the Core Strategy will not be completed within the next 18 months.  
  • Within that period there will be a general election, and elections for (new boundary) local district councillors.
  • All these may have significant impact on the planning process. Specifically Core Strategy policies including: dispersal of developments throughout the District; and the definition of a ‘Local Service Village’, may change.
  • Announcements of proposed central government funding cuts to local authorities and public services, to reduce UK borrowing levels, will have as yet unknown effect on economic activity, including housing and employment.
  • Given this background, I suggest that the pressing need to have the NP completed urgently, within the currently proposed timetable, has been removed. This is important as it would allow creation of a much more detailed and comprehensive NP than current time pressures allow.
The secondary factor that recommends a change to this timetable is the potential impact of the NP on the current planning process. We have not yet heard the Inspector’s decision on the Gladman development. We do not yet know his attitude to the NP, and the planning weight given to it, in its current form; nor in any form, until the Core Strategy is approved.
     We do not yet know what weight the NP will have in planning decisions. I suggest we cannot, nor want to, rely on politically influenced decisions which might be made by the Secretary of State.
     Even if the NP were to have weight for the Gladman development, or any other planning applications, it may quickly become virtually redundant. New housing developments in Tysoe may already have met SDC’s suggested Local Service Village requirement (for 50-75 houses by 2030) before the Core Strategy or NP are published and approved.

If you agree with any part of what I have to say – and I know from comments that have been made on other posts that I am not alone; nor even a lone voice… – or with what Keith has written, please turn up at the Pre-Submission Consultation Open Session that “will take place in the Reading Rooms on 5th January at 7pm” and say so. Or simply email this post to your friends.

This – apart from the referendum on the final version – really is your last chance to stand up and be heard; your last chance to be engaged with the Plan’s development – unless you (and only you) make it otherwise.