Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Time to stop and think…

If voting changed anything they’d abolish it

Introduction (and an explanation)
I started writing this in the early hours of Tuesday, 14 April: a few hours after the last Parish Council meeting: and, like a few villagers I know, was intending to sit down and review the latest draft – particularly the proposed ‘policies’ – of the Neighbourhood Plan in detail (for reasons that will become apparent).

But it quickly became obvious that, as it stands, it is too large a document for one person to assimilate; too high a monument for one person to climb – and a Sisyphean one at that: because, if it carries on in its current form – straying from its original purpose; growing like Topsy – it will burst at its seams with increasing numbers of increasingly irrelevant appendices and decrees. Any final vote on its acceptance by Tysoe, therefore, will also be rendered as meaningless as the document itself: as all (or at least the great majority) of the parishioners eligible to approve or reject it will similarly not have been able to readily absorb its contents (much like some of the current political manifestos).

This is not because we are all stupid; neither that we are unwilling, and do not care about our village’s future, or our fellow villagers. It is obvious from many of the events of the last eighteen months that we are lucky to live in a place peopled with fiercely intelligent souls who love where they live; and, given the opportunity, will defend it with great spirit and great thought.

What it does mean, though – as I have suspected for many months (and as evidenced by this blog) – is that the production and implementation of the Plan has lost all the trappings, the raiments, as well as the substance, of democracy. It is not for the people, or of the people. It is merely an exercise in solipsistic bureaucracy: and, therefore, is not worthy – in my opinion – to bear the title it has been given. As I wrote recently to my friend, Duke Senior, discussing the “further consultation” that was described in correspondence at the end of that Parish Council meeting:

It will be intriguing to see… if these meetings create more than a momentary sense of resistance, rather than a joined-up revolution. That is not to say that I don’t think they are useful: they are; and are, of course, what the Neighbourhood Plan steering-wheel-with-a-very-loose-nut group should have done in the first place…. I am starting to feel, though, that the village doesn’t – as a living, breathing, just-getting-on-with-it entity – see the need for its course to be planned or prepared for: they will respond to the prevailing winds as they have always done, tacking silently and apparently passively; slightly resisting the change, but eventually accepting it, without trying to mix too many ruffled water metaphors; and the whole thing is just seen to be an exercise in keeping certain… factions busy whilst doing so.

But it is not up to me to say whether or not we need, or should have, a Neighbourhood Plan (however public my opinions – which is all they are: I do not seek to direct the village, as would some…). It was proposed to the Parish Council; and they accepted it. The Plan’s future is solely in their hands. Therefore, accepting that, at the moment, it exists; and we, as villagers, have been ‘invited’ to provide feedback; what follows are my original (and resulting), somewhat fragmentary, thoughts: prompted by my attempted review; occasionally interspersed with a little bit of context, now that I have failed to accomplish what – even with my past criticisms – I set out to do in good faith, for the sake of our village….

If one meets a powerful person – Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler – one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

14 April 2015
We were told – several times, in fact – at last night’s Parish Council meeting, that, despite the consultation period for the second draft (even though we’re not now supposed to use such numbering) of the Neighbourhood Plan now being closed (or, at least, that’s what I think was said), some members (past or present?) of the steering group currently responsible for it were perturbed (and I’m generalizing a little, here: i.e. my report is not verbatim – for reasons that will have become clear in an earlier post) by the lack of critical feedback on the actual ‘policies’ delineated in the Plan (and which I, for one, still feel have originated out of nowhere: as I cannot find a clear public audit trail leading me back to villagers’ suggestions of, or agreement with, the highly-detailed rules proposed).

Although this described “lack” is not actually true, of course – as I for one have questioned the, to me, ridiculous dependency on ironstone; and the inexcusable ban on windpower, etc.; and the Plan’s own appendices also prove this – I am always happy to try my best (as I always do, of course) to keep fellow residents happy with what I am told are my “lucid words”; and to do what I have been asked (although I have been told that quite a few other villagers also feel that they are being “bullied” into accepting the Plan in its current-bun form: which I empathize with…). So here are a selection of the responses of the Bardic jury. (I do not want to fall into the trap of producing a document that is as over-long and -convoluted as the current Plan draft: thus hiding my opinions in plain sight… – so, like its authors (see below), I am, of course, being highly selective in my choices.)

“In architecture, originality is a crime,” consoled his wife and collaborator, Margaret Macdonald. “Especially to those who can themselves only be copyists.”
– Oliver Wainwright: The Guardian

6 May 2015
But I fell at the first hurdle, of course. I opened up the current draft (and, yes, I actually had a large tumbler of whisky in my hand, to numb the forthcoming pain), and started reading; and soon realized two things: firstly, this was not actually a neighbourhood plan – it was an unstructured compilation of often irrelevant exercises that the authors had felt capable of producing – and, secondly, a lot of it was either unintelligible (and I hope I have proved with my “lucid words” that my command of English is reasonably decent: even though I studied engineering at university…), or relied on a series of obfuscating references, tied up in stacked, serial appendices and ofttimes unfathomable, unfollowable, algorithms and tables – a veritable Gordian knot of confusion.

Withdrawing my metaphorical sword from its sheath, whichever way I sliced the resulting mess (and I tried to do so several times – with decreasing reward – over the intervening weeks), I was left with two overwhelming feelings: insofar as much as this is a plan, it is extremely authoritarian (seemingly wanting us all to live in identical ironstone boxes); and it requires keener steel than mine to both cut through the confusion and excise the unnecessary pap.

Great planning does not mean either “most restrictive” or “most laissez-faire”. It means creating the conditions for growth and change while maintaining a vision of the common good. It balances competing interests. It includes a grasp of the cumulative effect of individual decisions…. It can protect long-term benefits against damage from short-term profit. It has the ability to spot problems before they become crises and find a way to address them. It can review alternative approaches to an issue, such as population growth, and promote the best ones. It has clarity and consistency, so everyone knows where they stand. It has the ability to review the results of its own decisions, and learn from them. It is informed by knowledge, not guesswork. It is the result of genuine and transparent public debate.
– Rowan Moore: The Observer

We want it to meet the needs of the whole community now and into the future.

Foregone conclusions
Of course, if I had wielded the Bardic blade with more success, the results still wouldn’t explain where the Plan’s policies – good, bad, indifferent; prescriptive, proscriptive; intelligible or vague – originated from; or why a document that should be idea- and people-led is being wagged by the originality-threatening tail of process, and deadlines continually stacked like rickety pallets up into the south Warwickshire skies, Jenga-like and ultimately fragile, and increasingly divorced from the village. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Neighbourhood Plan authors made Percy’s statement (when discussing the Village Hall – a much-loved facility they seem keen on demolishing…) their mantra?

From the pain come the dream
From the dream come the vision
From the vision come the people
From the people come the power
From this power come the change

We the People
However, as I mentioned above, it seems that change – however small – is afoot, thankfully, to remedy all this: and that the as-yet-unnamed small groups (I don’t want to use the ‘focus’ word – as that’s not what they are about; in fact they are about the exact opposite – talking about whatever comes to mind, and as widely as possible about the village) are being put together, semi-informally, to chat about any and all aspects of our beloved home. The hope is, that, in freeing people’s minds – after removing the shackles of time and obedience; and unleashing them from procedures, methodologies, algorithms and those foregone conclusions – we can (and will) all discover or even stumble upon the broad seams and nuggets of ideas that we know are out there. (There are probably some buzzing around your head, right now.)

These groups – it is hoped (the first of which was held just after the last Parish Council meeting) – will also unlock the passion for the parish and inspirations for its future development (and I don’t just mean land-based…) that is currently noticeably absent (apart from the odd angry middle-aged man disobeying Parish Council protocol); or even actively being steamrolled – letting that vision at last gush forth unimpeded; and from which all else should spring. (And not the other way around: as is currently the case.)

As even the Government’s own guidance states:

Neighbourhood planning can inspire local people and businesses to consider other ways to improve their neighbourhood than through the development and use of land. They may identify specific action or policies to deliver these improvements. Wider community aspirations than those relating to development and use of land can be included in a neighbourhood plan….

But, as any marketer will tell you: you don’t start big and then work small – so (as I discussed with Duke Senior), why is it only now that these groups are being convened: nearly a year after the first drafts of the village questionnaire were being put together (and which included questions, therefore, that did not stem from the village – but, yet again, from a self-selected, select few; and which, as I have written before, obviously reflected their innate biases)?

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

If we, as residents, do not take and feel ownership; if the Parish Council does not maintain control of the Plan’s development with thorough and rigorous oversight, and a representative love for the place they govern; and if the group that produces it does not listen – and keep striving to listen (even to uncomfortable truths); as well as learning to follow, rather than leading us by our noses – then the resulting document will be a wasted opportunity; a waste of time and effort; and a waste of the paper it is printed on.

In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.

We do not need a shopping list of fields for developers to target. What we need is a Tysoe which develops – as much as it can: as much as any “precious stone set in the silver sea” – in a way that we all recognize and wish for; and which does not lead our children and grandchildren continually to curse us for bequeathing them a village that is sterile through repetitious housing developments; even more isolated than now, because we did not grasp the chance to become subsistent in non-fossil-fuel-based power and motivation; or that has crumbled into a hollow, unrecognizable ghost and an uncomfortable locale to inhabit… because all we cared about was now, was instant gratification, was ourselves.

What we need is a Tysoe which belongs to us all; and where every resident has an important say and a strong hand in how it grows; and where everyone is happy listening to those voices; grateful for their words; and shakes those hands in friendship – joining them together in building a future that everyone believes in.

The power of the people and the power of reason are one.

No comments: