Top-down and bottom-up are already living together.

I have just come across a suggestion that our present top-down bureaucratic form of government should be replaced by “one that is open to challenge from below”. This reminds me of how the idea of localism was corrupted by the powers-that-be into the Localism Act 2011, with its off-spring Neighbourhood Planning. I hope this is not what is meant.

In my locality the response of the local planning authority to this seemingly bottom-up opportunity was to produce thirty seven “Guidance Notes” for Parish Councils, who have the power to produce Neighbourhood Development Plans.  One of which states that “The goal for all involved in producing a Neighbourhood Development Plan is for your plan to become adopted planning policy. As such, the stages of producing the plan are set out within the Neighbourhood Planning Regulations and these will need to be met in order for your plan to progress and be successful at the examination.”

In other words neighbourhood plans must accord with the laws and plans made by higher authorities.

Moreover they are only plans for the use of land. Formal neighbourhood planning does nothing about social problems such as an aging population, vagrancy, pot holes in the lanes, withdrawal of bus services and other things which may be seen locally to be more important than where to build a few houses.

The only way to enable people to decide how they want their localities to develop (in every sense) would be to withdraw those formal top-down systems which stop people, individually and collectively, doing their own things.

There are a few examples of what happens when top down services are reduced or seen to be inadequate. In another piece I mentioned how redundant telephone boxes are being used by enterprising local people as libraries, art galleries and to house defibrillators. This shows what can be done when there is no interference from above and there are unused “buildings” available.  Another example is the emergence of local health and well-being therapists, in response to increasing frustration with the inability of the NHS to deal with health problems, often misleadingly said to be idiopathic. Responsibility for the care of those unable to care for themselves is another example where there is a shift from public service provision to informal home-care.

A largely unseen aspect of this change from public to domestic is the withdrawal, in some areas, of town planning enforcement action to deal with so called non-conforming development. In areas where houses are spread around, some with their own land, where tidy-mindedness does not prevail, people are being accommodated in wooden buildings (which look like sheds). Four years after they have been erected they become immune from enforcement action.  There is nothing unlawful in building a home and when officialdom turns a blind eye to what is going on we can see how the withdrawal of a public service (planning enforcement) can lead to bottom-up development. Whether you think this is a good thing will depend on how you view such things.

This raises an interesting question.  It seems that top-down and bottom-up can exist together. Is this a way to see the future?

The examples I have pointed out are of an emerging future which is “accidental”. The growth of bottom-up services may have been triggered by the decline or dislike of specific public services, but maybe it was always so.  In the past, when all kinds of growth was expected and planned for, new public services were added and developed.  Now the reverse is happening and can be seen as symptoms of degrowth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with degrowth or no-growth, it is when it is labelled as decline that it is seen from above as a threat.  It is not in the interest of politicians of the left or right to admit that a future of decline is possible. But if specific services were to be labelled “obsolescent” and either abandoned or replaced with new kinds of sustainable bottom-up growth, this would surely be attractive politically?

Is this is what is meant by challenging bureaucracy from below?  I hope so!

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