Thursday, 4 January 2018

Public policy and the tyranny of spreadsheets

About ten years ago I did a stint working for a major consultancy firm. The offices were out in an office park on the A1 near Wetherby. Because of the then fashionable eco-dogma, planners had deliberately underprovided on parking. Consequently parking was allocated on seniority and length of service. Consequently you had to either park in a housing development about ten minutes down the road or park in the Sainsbury's car park - until they put a stop to that.

The theory was that people would instead choose public transport. That was no use to me because the commute was an hour on the train to Leeds and then another hour on the bus. It was a non-starter. They tried a company car share scheme but that didn't last because generally people don't like to be forced into socialisation with their colleagues.

Then having expanded the business they had to admit defeat where everybody had to park in the designated car park and block each other in. You had to put your phone number on your dashboard so you could be contacted if someone wished to leave. It was farcical. I quit. It was stupid. Then a year later I was working in a different company in a different office park with exactly the same problems.

Who could have foreseen this? Who could have foreseen that that building an office park miles from a railway station, an hour from the centre of any major city would have people driving to work? Seemingly everyone except for those in charge of planning.

If I recall, this was Whitehall initiative passed down to councils to put a quota on reducing car journeys. Either that or a tax on parking spaces. Something stupid like that. It was utterly retarded and everybody thought so.

To me this is absolutely totemic of the New Labour era. Central diktats dreamed up by god knows who, passed down to councils who were obliged to enforce them. No doubt this is coupled with the shortsightedness of developers and local planners.

I remember at the time, it was part of an integrated policy not least to avoid spending on extra road capacity. The bottom end of the M606 was turned into a car share lane which instantly doubled the waiting time to get on the M62 as virtually no-one took up the offer of locally coordinated car share schemes.

Drivers are not communitarian at the best of times, but woking somebody else's morning faff into your own when all you want is a Starbucks, Radio 4 and to be left alone for an hour before an eight hour shift is just too big of an ask. Again, you didn't need to be Mystic Meg to see that coming. The car share lane has since been deleted.

Everywhere you look in modern Britain you see examples of whoddathunkit planning. I mean, who could have thought that an Ikea and a KFC drive-thru on the M4 Reading-Calcot junction would have traffic backing out on to the M4? Real genius move that was.

And then, as mentioned before, 15,000 houses added to Didcot. That will be a super smart move. Parking is already at capacity, the railway station is already at capacity even after a major refit, the narrow road through the centre of Didcot can't take any more traffic, the town is always jammed and there comes a point where you cannot physically put more trains on a particular line. The result will be antisocial parking with people using the nearby housing estates for parking.

Reading already has this problem. If you live on the West side and you drive out to the supermarket there's a good change that when you get back somebody will have taken your parking spot and you will have to park anywhere up to a mile away from your house. When it comes to parking there are fewer more potent examples of human selfishness. All the while cars are only getting bigger to the point where a Mini barely fits into a municipal multi-storey carpark.

And here's where we come to the crunch. In December 2017 the Royal Statistical Society released their "UK Statistic of the Year". The statistic was 0.1%, the proportion of land area in the UK which is densely built up. Following on from this, Ipsos MORI asked the British public what percentage of land in the UK they think is densely built up. The findings show the public hugely overestimate the figure with a mean guess of 47%.

Clearly there is a gulf between perception and reality. Here is where the spreadsheet sociopaths start wagging their fingers at people who do think that we are full up. It's all very well saying that only 0.1% of land is built on but the recital of an extrapolated statistic doesn't make the experience of daily forty five minute traffic jams go away. It's a question of where people are and where they need to get to - which is usually wherever the jobs are.

Many will seek to blame decades of underinvestment in infrastructure, but that's not strictly fair. The question is whether development can keep pace with the pressures added to it. In this it's not just a question of transportation, it is also a question of all the below-the-street infrastructure from internet to sewerage, energy supply and reservoirs. Not forgetting waste disposal and the more arcane and overlooked art of flood management.

That's where things that should be straightforward just aren't. In recent years the doctrine of demand side management is has taken root, with planners favouring ever more limitations on existing capacity rather than adding more. It turns out that in order to keep pace we need to do both. We are also hit with the problem that we need people to give up their cars, but they are not going to whatever we try. Everybody thinks there are too many cars on the road but nobody is volunteering to set an example.

The consequence of this perpetual growth is that places do become oversubscribed leading to increasingly selfish behaviour and planning decisions that do have a negative impact on quality of life. And that is the missing element of the development debate. Growth obsessed policymakers treat governance like farming, seeking the maximum crop yield or the ideal productivity ratios. Things like democratic consent don't really come into it.

Moreover, GDP is a poor indicator. All that really tells you is the rate of economic expansion. It says nothing about real wealth and access to opportunity but even then those factors neglect quality of life issues and the value we place on national heritage assets. With each new development, with each year of expansion with see that little is scared and the developers bottom line always takes precedence irrespective of the negative externalities - and who really foots the bill.

So if there's a point to this piece, it is that we should be wary of the spreadsheet jockeys peddling statistics. Policy must be informed by perception and experience as much as the statistical extrapolations. Something as simple as personal preference is reason enough to defy the technocrats. It is entirely a respectable view to rejection the expansionist dogma of economists - especially when they seek to downplay, deny or even ridicule the social consequences of their ideas.

Very often rapid expansion comes with the erosion of community and the destruction of tradition and heritage; Things that people value more than all year round new potatoes and cheap flights to Spain. Until policymakers are capable of understanding that material wealth alone is insufficient for a harmonious society, we will continue to see populist movements.

Ultimately what we are looking at is the product of top down governance. From EU directives through to Whitehall targets, the political ambitions of technocrats have overridden local knowledge, local preference and the inherent wisdom in democracy. We have taken the decision making away from people and put it in the hands of the unelected few both in London and Brussels.

Most are now acutely aware that the global population is rising and immigration is indeed a fact of life, but attitudes to immigration will sour if people lack the tools to manage the consequences of that population growth. In this people need to be free to innovate and be free to say no without being overruled by London.

For decades now we have been subject to the tyranny of spreadsheets. We are so often told that the statistics contradict our direct experiences - and that all of our preferences and values are subordinate to the holy grail of GDP growth. It gives way to a command and control mentality where the public are reduced to the status of serfs grazing on the land and subject to ever more diktat from people who openly despise them. For as long as local government is subordinate to the whims of metropolitan sociopaths, governments will continue to find that contempt travels in both directions.

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