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Inherent flaws in government policies won’t just come out in the wash

People by launderette

What do damaged socks and failed housing policies have in common? Chris Shepley knows...

Mr Khan returned from launderette duty to find Mrs Khan in critical mood. She pointed to his shoddy washing skills. Her undies, now a dull shade of grey, had been the purest white; the hole in her cardie must have been created by a careless handling error; and melted tights were no longer acceptable in polite society. This, she said, followed a string of similar errors since about 2010, leading to the loss of several frocks and a number of woollies.

His fellow washerpersons, Mrs Braithwaite and Mrs McTavish, were having similar bother. Mr McTavish had been complaining about unravelling socks for years. And Mr Braithwaite was having endless trouble with his trousers. Clearly, the time the trio spent dissecting the government’s planning policies round the dryers had distracted them from their main purpose of washing.

Mr Khan issued a statement. “In the period since 2010” he said “over 700 items of intimate apparel have been successfully laundered every year, together with nearly 400 outer garments. This is a 3 per cent improvement compared with the previous 10 years. Fewer than 11 per cent have been severely damaged, and this compares well with the European average. Greater use of Elsie in the back office, and a change in the brand of powder, will lead to further improvements over the next decade, and should eliminate singeing by 2035”.

“Fewer police are somehow a triumph. Health targets are never missed, merely rearranged”

Mrs Khan realised Mr Khan had been reading DCLG statements. “I know the kind of thing” she said. “Someone points out that nobody can afford a house, that half of the population are living in cardboard boxes in the middle of motorways, and that hardly any social housing is being built. Some press officer, with majestic complacency, replies that everything is going swimmingly, the New Housing Perquisite Godsend Incentive Capability is working like a dream (more than 12 social houses were built last year, a gazillion per cent improvement), and anyway they’re not much worse than the last lot. 

“They all do it. Fewer police are somehow a triumph. Health targets are never missed, merely rearranged. Even if 10 thousand teachers have quit, we’re training even more, and efficiently using people with no qualifications. The private sector does it too.”
Mr Khan had to agree. Part of the problem was that there was very little scrutiny of whether policies were working. But Mrs McTavish had pointed out a rare exception. 

In 2014 the government had adopted a policy, widely derided by planners at the time, to allocate £3.5 million to give to householders living near new housing, in order to reduce opposition to development. A study by the University of Sheffield, somewhat reluctantly released, showed that only 6 per cent of households felt this might work, and they tended to be those less strongly opposed anyway. Most were opposed to the very principle, 46 per cent associating it with “bribes”. 

None of the professionals in the survey supported it, feeling inter alia that it could reduce trust in planning, be divisive and reduce community cohesion, and fail to reduce opposition. The money could be better spent in other ways. The survey showed the policy had clearly failed, and it has apparently been quietly dropped. 

It would be good, Mrs McTavish had suggested, if similar surveys could prove the success or otherwise of other policies, such as the one to ease the conversion of launderettes, such as their own, to swimming pools or tiny homes.

“That was the reason why we began to take an interest in the planning system,” said Mr Khan. “And this brings me back to your undies. They have, sadly, become collateral damage in the constant battle for decency and common sense. A small sacrifice, I think, for a better Britain”.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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