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31/05/2016

When the nanny state really doesn't know what's best

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What's the difference between a train station and the Department of Communities and Local Government? Not an awful lot, according to Chris Shepley

Chris ShepleyI spend some time waiting for trains. So would you if you used Great Western Railways.

A good deal of this time is spent listening to a computer issuing various instructions. Sometimes it’s apologising, with sincerity, for delays. But otherwise it nannyishly tells me what to do. Without reference or relevance to my situation, that of other passengers (as I quaintly call them), or the world in general.

I was told the other day to fold buggies and prams before boarding, to beware of slippery surfaces due to wet weather, and to refrain from feeding the pigeons. In the absence of babies, birds or rain, I thought the computer could have saved its breath. I was then instructed to mind the gap between the train and the platform edge (something I’ve managed to achieve for a few decades now), mind my luggage, and let people off the train first.

There was a warning that doors would be shut 30 seconds before departure to enable a prompt getaway, even on trains that were already 20 minutes late, and an instruction to brush my teeth and wash behind my ears so as not to disturb other passengers. (I may have dreamt that bit).

Sometimes there is a real emergency – for example, after the Hatfield rail tragedy, when the system fell into a kind of black hole. Timetables became irrelevant. I was at my local station one morning amid a vast crowd of hopeful travellers. The staff had no idea whether any trains were coming, or where they might be going if they did materialise. But after a long period there was a bing-bong, and ears were agog as the computer cranked into action. To an astonished silence, it informed the seething mass of humanity squeezed onto the platform that it was forbidden to use skateboards on the station.

"Some people think this is a conspiracy to weaken planning as a social good, but I'm more of a cock-up theorist"

I am reminded of this by the current antics of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In recent years it has been issuing instructions to local government with a similar incessant, insistent and nannyish frequency. Many of these instruct them to do utterly trivial things. Others advise on things they need no advice about, like developing around commuter hubs, or brushing their teeth and washing behind their ears. (I may have dreamt that bit).

Sometimes there is an emergency, presently to do with housing, and the undesirable situation that in this advanced Western country with, the chancellor tells us, a thriving economy, lots of people can’t afford to buy or rent a home. This upsets me. But recently there has been frantic binging and bonging, and from the government computer have emerged urgent vaguenesses about sink estates, blindingly obvious exhortations about brownfield land, damaging contrivances about permitted development, menacing wafflings about zoning, ill-informed burblings about garden cities, misdirected fury about under-delivery, magisterial stupidities about upward extensions, perpetual recalculations about assorted targets, blame-shifting blather about the green belt, addictive compulsions about competition, and (before the supply of adjectives is exhausted) stuff about CIL, starter homes, local plans, revising the NPPF, permissions in principle, registers, cooling-off periods, neighbourhood forums, and not skateboarding on the platform.

Just as announcements on the station only occasionally refer to trains, so those from the government rarely refer to positive house building measures. There is much tweaking of process and folding of buggies. But no strategic assessment of the need for housing, where to put it, and how to ensure that people can afford it.

Some people think this is a conspiracy to weaken planning as a social good, but I’m more of a cock-up theorist. I think it’s just a mixture of incompetence, impetuosity, ideology and  incomprehension.

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

Ilustration credit | Olivind Hovland

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