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.

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