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29/01/2016

None shall sleep while the song remains the same

Words:
Illustration by Oivind Hovland

What do Pavarotti and the present government have in common? Chris Shepley has the answer...

Chris ShepleyI was in New York some years ago, and I had the good fortune to see the great tenor Pavarotti performing in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Pavarotti was singing to a tiny soprano, of whom he seemed rather fond. She fluttered around him, disappearing completely from time to time behind his vast bulk, as he explained in Italian (with subtitles) that he fancied her something rotten. But he never for one moment looked towards her to assess her response to his advances, being much more interested in the need to cast an appropriately emotional expression at the audience. He seemed completely immobile, which may not have helped. He was oblivious to the fact, obvious to those of his audience not completely overwhelmed by the transcendent (if fading) beauty of his voice, and undoubtedly to the soprano too, that any bid to consummate their passion was doomed to end in a messy and probably fatal anti-climax.

So what was the essence of his problem, and how can we learn from it? He had in mind a policy that was unattainable, at least by the methods he preferred (which, given his inability to shift his position, involved simply ploughing hopelessly on). He seemed unaware of the possible unintended consequences of his actions, having failed to consult genuinely with interested parties, such as the audience. His presentation skills remained strong, though less effective than once they had been. He was severely constrained by the libretto, which was of little relevance to the real situation on the stage. An uncritical audience – influenced by an uncritical press – suspended disbelief, but deep down knew that failure was inevitable. All the concrete evidence suggested that the process he envisaged was messy and the outcome almost certainly disastrous.

"The private sector will continue to do its understandable thing, building sufficiently few houses to keep the prices up"

My guess is that you are ahead of me here. The government aims to solve the housing crisis. This is unattainable, at least by the methods they prefer (which, given their inability to shift their position, involve simply ploughing hopelessly on). They seem unaware of the possible unintended consequences of their actions, having failed to consult genuinely with interested parties, such as nearly everybody. Their presentation skills remain strong, though less effective than they once were. They are severely constrained by the libretto (“taken the tough decisions”, “hard-working families”, etc), which is of little relevance to the real situation on the street. An uncritical audience, influenced by an uncritical press, suspend disbelief but deep down know that failure is inevitable. All the evidence suggests that the process they envisage is messy and almost certainly disastrous.   

So – with a few flimsy sticks and unappetising carrots in the Autumn Statement, a few more threats and constraints lobbed at local government, and a few financial gadgets which will probably raise prices still further overall, numbers may creep upwards (but never mind the quality). Moderate numbers of unaffordable affordable houses will be built. The private sector will continue to do its understandable thing, building sufficiently few houses to keep the prices up, and grumbling. But without something like a bit of strategic planning or a sophisticated public sector building programme to complement the private sector product, the objectives will not be reached.

Energy policies seem similarly Pavarottian, heading energetically in an expensive direction while ignoring the evidence that other solutions might be better. The outcome could be equally tragic, as the tiny renewable soprano is smothered by the nuclear behemoth. Operas often end with the deaths of the leading players. We shall see. But not much will change as there is little effective opposition.

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

ILLUSTRATION | OIVIND HOVLAND

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