Mad Council Disease (MCD)
How do gross planning mistakes happen?
Mad Council Disease (MCD) is a bovine encephalopathy that affects some councils, sometimes unexpectedly, even when the body politic is apparently healthy and in possession of all its faculties.
It has to be guarded against – rather like thunderstorms, which can come unpredictably and require severe and strong channels in place to deal with them.
The idea of MCD striking suddenly should perhaps become part of the normal vocabulary for all discussion in and about the UK’s local councils.
The disease arises when about three or four factors intercept, interacting to create a perfect ‘storm’.
These factors are exacerbated because:
(i) so few people of the electorate oversee the process (only some 20% of the electors in a local council election actually take part and vote – so how many less of them actively oversee from the public arena?), and
(ii) elected councillors may tend to hold career officials in awe.
– As a result even a small combination of these factors can be fatal to common sense in a final decision.
Here is a possible partial list:
- small oversights in procedure or small omissions in oversight of procedures,
- small misunderstandings or lack of communication between department or agents/actors within a council system;
- transactions involving corruption or, to use a Shakespearean phrase, “slight regard” for full-scale attention to quality of decisions at all times;
- simple forgetfulness;
- over-concentration on outdated political formulae that may not be appropriate to individual local planning, visual or spatial circumstances;
- simple outright lack of ability;
- or, even, temporary lapses into idiocy, possibly resulting from a subordinate, respective, ‘perfect storm’ in the electoral system (since only 20% of the public take part in the electoral system).
The 20%-vote factor means that the degree of active interest, supporting actual content of thought, feeling, or opinion about matters such as town planning or other spatial arrangement for which a council is responsible, simply get a minimal, almost zero or even negative, coverage from public opinion, and consequently its tools and/or media of expression.
The problem is that absence of robustness in so many of these processes can simply mean that the system does not have the necessary proteins, enzymes, immune system devices, processes, muscles, nerves, connection to the brain and indeed exercise of brain power in any event that are necessary for the council’s normal active health.
This is when a local authority decision is at risk of Mad Council Disease.
What is essential is that there should be
(a) knowledge, understanding and realisation by the public that this takes place;
(b) concern and determination among the public (even if only on the part of a few leaders [sigh]) to reverse this situation when it arises; and
(c) widespread use of tools in this correction process: for this to happen, the tools have to be
- familiar to the public,
- and subject of normal discourse and conversation.
(Trying to make this information commonplace and popular will be one of the aims of the CityVoice website when in full format.)
Typical bad cases
Some features of outbreaks include:
Defend your predecessors
Sometimes those responsible for enacting an idiotic and illogical action find themselves, rabidly, passionately, determinedly defending actions put in train by their predecessors, who may even be of a party that is ideologically their opposite – or they may be defending a decision that was made by some friend they had on the council two years previously (having perhaps committed to it at that time and lost interest in continuing to consider whether it is still useful or desirable).
Familiarity breeds Dilution of Conviction
Another departure from the need for permanent vigilance in terms of logic and good sense is because even when elected by and passionate about determinedly opposed lines of political thinking, the fact of having to work together on council committees to solve local, non-political problems, creates another vice:
– Dilution of Conviction (DoC), in the interests of the Cosy Convenience of Working Together (CCoWT).
In this syndrome, repeatedly, small errors of thinking, logic, persuasion, conviction, and even ethics are overlooked in the course of reaching consensus.
The result of this is that people gradually lose their political, artistic, architectural, town planning or other convictions – which were already fragile plants to cultivate – to the overweening drought represented by the need for consensus and “getting things done” in the day-to-day council business.
It is essential that:
(a) people should have conviction;
(b) there should be tough and determined fight based on those convictions;
(c) since the electorate are the overseers, the electorate should be conscious of these differences and clearly take part in voting for them, in larger quantities; and indeed
(d) the people in general should have artistic, architectural, design, or other spatial convictions, ideas and passions about town planning in the first place.
To break the logjam represented by the absence of so many of these factors, it will frequently become essential for an individual, who may appear to be eccentric, to raise his voice in the extreme, over some issue regarding spatial design or use, to awaken the other participants – in a council, for example, or committee – to the need to actually discuss various positions of opinion on these matters.
Currently the danger is of these matters not even being raised or discussed – which merely contributes to the possibility of the transparent stream of careful architectural, spatial and planning thought being muddied and diluted into a great, mediocre river, which floods along in an endless series of mediocre decisions.
Here is a little list of just a few instances of Mad Council Disease(only those that spring to mind!), and their extremely deleterious results:
- St. Paul’s Playing Field, Hammersmith. Ten acres of park carefully planned in an overcrowded borough thrown away by pure MCD (Initially, inattentive conservatives succumbed to momentum of entrenched bureaucracy [postwar, GLC internal planners/architects were an ‘elite’]. Later, misplaced left idealism (“housing!”) overcame commonsense, upheld a plan passed by conservatives, and was too weak-brained to perceive the meaning of a mass protest – then it was too late.
- The trees in Sheffield. (Current contract to fell 17,500 trees to facilitate asphalt works in long-term maintenance contract.)
- Very numerous recent decisions to allow building on greenbelt, where more careful leadership, thought and direction might have made sure that the same building can be achieved elsewhere.
- Massive development for the rich in a poor borough – approved and allowed by councils elected by and for the poor (Southwark / South London / Elephant Castle: e.g. “Of the 2,704 new homes at Elephant Park…only 82 are for social rent.”)
- Decision by Lewisham (South London) to raze woodland and cemetery.
- Botley, Oxon: Vale of White Horse’s plan to compulsorily purchase a vast surrounding area to enable it to sell-on a 1960s shopping precinct (Botley), a small component of the whole area planned, with which it felt saddled, to raise cash. (This issue personally stressed-out over a thousand objectors for 2 years before Vale of White horse finally dropped it).
( – many of these recent cases, tweeted at @CityVoicEd.)
Now in many of these cases you will say that it was the planning laws themselves that caused or enabled the inappropriate and damaging decisions.
This is true in some cases, or in part.
We need indeed to correct quite a lot of the planning law, and it seems that the recent proposed revision of the NPPF has not really achieved this.
One suggestion by the present author is that the whole basis of the law of town-and-country – spatial – planning should be reconstructed on the basis of a newly-recognised “human right”: the right for an individual to continue to have the same environment, unless that individual agrees to a change.
This would be an interesting proposal merely as an emergency antidote to the present system, which has clearly not succeeded in protecting the right of the individual, the person, the citizen or a collective based on the citizen, as much as might be desired.
In this author’s opinion it is necessary to pull back the ring fence of permitted collective action extremely close to the individual, to set off a process in which the individual has to be involved and has to give an opinion on – and, effectively, approve – any radical, or even most large or even small-scale, changes.
– This means also a complete inside-out reversal of the process of “development”. In our new system, it will not be the “developer” who takes the initiative of apportioning value to a piece of land or a property, and proposing changes to it:
– It will be local individuals, grouped into street-sized units, perhaps, who will devise, dictate and plan changes to their environment. It is they who will hire developers, to do their will, rather than vice-versa.
This of course sounds extreme, but it is a suggestion to fend-off the increasing instances of #MadCouncilDisease (MCD) – to force decisions to be taken in a way that avoids MCD – since the present process has not satisfactorily provided the right outcomes.
Local people, local individuals, local initiative takers, local residents, a local council will devise individual initiatives for their locations, and put them into practice.
Local councils will have “design factories” available – for example to help local citizen-users devise, in terms of the artistic and technical experience of the architect, ways of putting their desires into effect.
But the desires will be theirs – of those citizens – not those of some outside economic interest which has identified a Place in their Area as a Source of Profit, and directs its action towards that aim and goal.
These ‘outside individuals’ have included councils themselves.
An example is the following case study:
( Case study 1 )
(Example (6) above): The Botley proposal by Vale of White Horse.
This was a proposal to rebuild not only the council’s own land, namely a slightly fading 1960s shopping centre, but by using the tempting process of compulsory purchase, to ‘enable’ financing of this by offering an apparently speedily chosen ‘developer’ the chance to make an unspecified, probably large, profit by redeveloping most of the surrounding existing community.
This had the adverse effect of seriously involving the anxiety of perhaps thousands of people, of whom approximately 1,200 actually wrote in their written objections – and suffered severe sources of anxiety, and the depression of seeing disappointment with the existing system of local councils taking shape under their noses in the form of a scheme of idiotic proportions and extreme lack of talent – as well as weird decisions such as – for example – demolishing a small old peoples’ home only to build another, same-sized one (ditto for a church) – for about a year and half.
This involved several people who became community leaders – by default, due to need – exercising their own time on a hugely voluminous basis precisely to articulate campaigns against the developer’s weird plans.
Their time was not financed, or paid, by anybody – they were supported by their own voluntary, individual effort.
To be successful this calls for a process of speedy professionalisation in campaigning, vast use of individuals’ valuable time, and in general a process that broadly speaking is useless and wasteful for a large number of people.
Meanwhile, developers are financed by their own instinct for speculative profit – in which they have finely honed skills – which are ‘trained’ to act against the local interest.
This system simply cannot be a good system.
This was a case of Mad Council Disease.
Due to two years’ passionate and sincere campaigning, the planning committee of the Vale of White Horse Council voted unanimously against the proposal put forward by its own majority party (Conservatives) – but only because their conscience was informed, and changed, by individuals, and members of minority parties in the elected council, taking on huge burdens of work, commitment, passion, involvement and exercise of will – which should not rightly be the necessary component burdens of a local democracy.
If the council had never had those powers of compulsory purchase; if all town planning had, by obligation of law, to emerge initially from local communities where “local means local” – a completely different outcome would have resulted.
After the first attack of Mad Council Disease, what emerged in the second scheme proposed by the ‘developers’ was mediocre, once again cost-containing and profit-seeking, and in general doomed visually to be a failure before it began (a case of Accept-Anything-because-Better-than-the-Previous [‘AABP’]). This talentless assembly is now being built.
An example of the cost-containing is: one of the campaigners at a public consultation-show for this second scheme spoke to the head of the development company, proposing,
(a) that shop fronts only a few yards back from a major highway were no better than “Kilburn High Street” and offered no sense of amenity to shoppers at that location – and that a different treatment (setback or arcade) should be given to that shop front area; and
(b) that since shoppers wish to be able to shop comfortably in the rain, there should be arcades – shelter from the rain – built in to the front of all the shop buildings – the solution adopted in many cities and town squares in Italy, in which pavements are arcaded (sheltered from rain and sun inside the ground floor of the shopping space), thus achieving some sense of distinction, quality, pleasure, joy of city-space-ness and other proper space amenities of a planned community space.
The developer’s CEO said, slightly smugly, and perhaps too rapidly: “Oh no, we can’t afford to give any arcade space – look at what that will do to our shop rental income”.
Further, when this author asked ALL the five architects from the chosen office (MAKE, I think, correct me if wrong) whether they had read Jane Jacobs, not a single one them said they even knew who Jane Jacobs was…!! This is a staggering experience – this diligent author could not believe his ears!
This is Institutionalised Mediocrity (IM) – another product in this list of casualties of proper administration.
Another side-symptom of #MadCouncilDisease.
The illustration below of Example (1) above (St Paul’s Playing Field, Hammersmith) shows just one such major failure (yes, it has all beein going on for a long time):
A major failure: West London lost 10 acres of park