Choose the topics of interest

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A Mind in the Making: From the Bottom-Up

This is an attempt to devise a way of finding our way through the connectedness of how things are – that is if you want to do this.  Most people don’t want to because they are perfectly content with where they are.

A good reason for wanting to find out about the connections is to enable better decisions to be taken about personal or institutional development. Things like buying a house, dealing with old age or developing incapacity, planning housing development, building or improving transport infrastructure (roads, railways, telecommunications), even thinking about possibilities for the future of a local authority or a country.  Any kind of development where you want to fathom out the potential consequences of different actions.

This blog is not structured in the usual top-down way, with categories and tags. My current idea is to think in terms of topics.   Each post will have one or more topics attributed to it.  If you click on the title of the post you will then see, at the bottom, that you can receive future posts on these topics by signing up at the bottom.

The underlying aim is to explore the future, from the bottom up.

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Bureaucracy will prevail, but we could change the way it works

One of the reasons bureaucracy annoys us so is that it mostly doesn’t seem to provide the services we, as individuals, want for ourselves and for the areas in which we live.  We grumble about declining services and also about wasteful expenditure.

One reason for our discontent is that standards and processes of service provision are dictated from the top-down, irrespective of the wants or needs of individuals or where we live.  Whether you live in a city or in a rural area, your needs are seen to be the same, and so you are supposed to get the same services.  It is a technocratic system which is assumed to be free of political prejudice.

Those of us who choose to live in the countryside do so because we prefer the life-style to the hustle and bustle of urban living, and are happy to forego the supposed benefits of city life.  Alternatively, we may prefer the diversity of urban life and the proximity of shops and gymnasiums and shudder at the thought of living in the sticks. More likely, where we live will be dictated by what we can afford.

Another reason for our discontent is that the compartmentalisation of bureaucratic systems has the effect of defining the same priorities between services throughout bureaucratic territories, irrespective of how priorities are seen locally.

It is a system which, at the top, defines the overall priorities of different services, but fails to recognise that these priorities are wrong the further down the system one goes.  As a result, for example, a village may want funding put into a local school rather than have better street lighting. A city neighbourhood may want funds put into social programmes rather than new roads.

For these reasons services are both insufficient in some areas and for some people, and over the top elsewhere.

This inefficiency in service provision has arisen because of the progressive centralisation of services during the past 50 years or more.  The extent of centralisation surprised me when I looked it up for my area.  Prior to local government reorganisation in 1974, excluding parish councils, there were 18 local authorities in Herefordshire:  a county council, two borough councils, four urban district councils and 11 rural district councils. Herefordshire now has just one local council: a unitary authority.

Centralisation was driven not just by bureaucratic self-interest but also by a belief that large organisations are more efficient than small ones, which may seem to be true from the top down, but which disregards the diversity of local needs and wants.

Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with self-interests, especially when they are admitted.

Bureaucracy prevails irrespective of the persuasion of the political powers at the top or further down. If the political control of a local authority switches from one party to another, the administrative systems remain the same.   Political decisions on individual budgets and projects may be tweaked slightly, but the professional standards and processes within an authority remain unchanged

National standards and processes may be changed by the topmost bureaucracy – the civil service – but politicians seem to be powerless to avoid the bureaucratisation of the outcomes .  For example, the UK civil service interpretation of localism, which was wanted politically, was to create yet more bureaucratic processes, said to enable local consultation (not participation) to influence top down decisions.

So the bureaucratic systems and associated professionalism over-rule the aspirations of those of us at grassroots.  And when public spending is seen to be insufficient to meet needs, the current ways of doing things are wasteful.

There must be another way, which is driven by the needs of individuals and where they live, rather than by technocratic standards and processes.  A way which combines decentralised decision-making (not just consultation) with back-office business-style administration.

The underlying motivation for seeking a new way of distributing public services must surely be to enable overall decline in spending to be less painful.  A way, for example, which focuses cuts in services on those individuals and areas who receive more services than they want.

A way which might change how we see bureaucracy.

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How we see the future depends on our vested interests

During the past 50 years or so, growth has been part of my mindset.  I thought my prospects were good when the GNP was predicted to increase. Not so now, maybe?

In the past it was assumed that growth would underlie our thinking about the future.  Even in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the UK was heavily in debt, growth was assumed to be on the horizon.

But what kind of growth?  From the top down the talk was of growth of the national economy, the GNP.  It was generally assumed that our prosperity would increase along with GNP.  For some years it seemed to, but now we are not so sure.

People who understand how things really are, such as Tim Morgan, have pointed out that “the long years of growing prosperity are over”.  I believe this to be so.

It is time to think about contingency planning for a different kind of future, in which – although the GNP may be positive – there will be a decline in prosperity, because income growth will not keep up with inflation.

Most people – politicians, bureaucrats, business people and Uncle Tom Cobley and all – are committed to achieving growth in their organisations and their lives.  It is an invincible part of our mindsets. It would be considered perverse to think, or rather say, otherwise.

For the first thirty years of my life there was no growth in prosperity, as a result of the war and its aftermath.  I don’t remember how I saw the future during the war because I was too young to understand what the endless hum of war-planes, the barrage balloons and the air-raid sirens meant.  Silver paper from the sky was a pleasurable mystery. Recycling was part of childhood then.  Clothes and toys were passed on within and between families as we grew up. It was the way things were.

Sweet rationing ended in 1953, the year I left school. Other rationing ended the following year.  But disposable incomes didn’t seem to be growing.  I didn’t feel better off, but that didn’t matter because I didn’t expect to.  No-growth was an unconscious part of my mindset. My 10p (old pence) a week pocket money and then my income of less than £1,000 per annum, as a Chartered Engineer,  dictated how much I had to spend. Spending kept down, because borrowing was not an option.

Then, in the late 1960s, local authorities were allowed to give 100 per cent mortgages to their employees, up to 2.5 times their income on new houses. About the same time credit cards appeared. From then on, inflation ruled our spending and my income kept up, because public sector salaries were linked to inflation.  We were able to take equity out of our property by getting larger mortgages, some of which was spent on things other than property.  Materialism had become an integral part of my mindset, and borrowing became OK.  The UK had become gripped by materialism.

However, my thinking has changed.  I have read so much about the end of growth that I now believe it is likely.  No doubt those who believe in unending growth also believe they are right.  So why not have two contingency plans, for both possibilities?

If I am right I believe that, sooner or later, there will be general acceptance, politically and in the media, that growth of prosperity is no longer possible.  This will then lead to a national change of mindset from materialism to something else. Which will be difficult in all sorts of ways.  Especially politically.

It seems to me that there is a general state of denial about the possibility that the years of increasing prosperity are over.  This denial is understandable because people have a well-established vested interest in growth, for themselves and their children. The reason I believe in no-growth is because I have no interest in becoming better off.  This is because I am in my 80s and I have no familial interest in growth.

It is only when you strip away your vested interests that you can begin to see things as they really are, and be able to make meaningful political judgements. Contingency planning for both growth and no growth in prosperity would be a good step to take, without revealing your bias.

Post Script: there is a conundrum underlying this issue.  In my experience, no-growth was not a negative experience.  I was as happy then, as in later years, when I was doing my best to keep up.  In today’s world, no-growth would have outcomes which are undeniably good.  Re-cycling is an example, not just of our daily doings, but also as advocated by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation with its partners, including the likes of Google, Phillips, Renault and Unilever, whose mission is “To Accelerate the Transition to a Circular Economy”.


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I regard this as one of the most important and useful explanations of surplus energy economics.

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Good Idea, Bad Idea: The Merits of Renewables, the Folly of Electric Vehicles

This is important!

#118: Good idea, bad idea

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No matter where you live

In 1978, I moved away from bureaucracy.  I did so because I was disillusioned with the top-down system and wanted to live away from it.  I had a naive belief that I would achieve this if we lived on the edge of the country, away from the centre, in the Welsh Marches. How wrong I was.

We liked the area and it seemed to be remote from bureaucracy.  Our friends from suburbia thought we were crazy (in fact, there are nine supermarkets within half an hour!). We knew nothing of what went on within our chosen area. The statistics told us little. We had bought somewhere in a parish in which there are about 200 dwellings occupied, by around 400 people.

Not a village. For historical reasons, to do with Welsh inheritance laws, the area had developed as a higgledy-piggledy mixture of dwellings, separate and in clusters.  A mixture of small-holdings, family farms and farm workers’ tied cottages and a few incomers seeking self-sufficiency (not just off the land).  Now just a nice memory.

All our roads are single track lanes with passing places.  When we arrived, there were no traffic signs or road markings on the lanes. Then gradually a proliferation of traffic signs have been installed by the highway authority, at every bend and minor junction.  All in accordance with national standards.  They are still being installed.  A bureaucratic machine, once set in motion, is beyond the power of ordinary people to stop.  It is a system which assumes that drivers on single track lanes are unable see bends in the road ahead and drive accordingly.

Our landscape is hilly, with the Black Mountains on the horizon.  Sheep and a few beef cattle populate the fields. Which is as it should be.  But there are also some huge sheds, mostly out of sight from the lanes, each holding more than 20,000 poultry. The planning system allows this, ignoring local views on the traffic generated and smelly output.

Industrial buildings which would be better located in urban areas, alongside the poultry factory in Hereford, which processes 26,000 chickens per hour (yes, per hour).  Farming has always been smelly, but this is different.

We have a parish council which, as elsewhere, is powerless to do anything other than to put its own views forward on planning applications when asked. Views which are not those of the people and which will in any case be ignored if they are out of step with national and local authority edicts.

We have a council-subsidised shopping bus service to Hereford. On three days in the week.

In the 1980s and 90s, property prices here increased and the urge to build set in. Despite planning policies which dictated that there should be no houses built in ‘open countryside’, local councillors ignored legal advice and permissions were given.  But not for long. The Local Planning Authority was ‘told off’ and the officers resumed control.

Recently, the planning regime has changed as a result of new government policies.  These have been interpreted by planners to mean that infilling between existing houses is now OK, so long as they are  in areas they define, preferably in a Neighbourhood Plan.  Which is fine for those with large gardens in areas which have been chosen for growth.

The NHS prevails here, as anywhere else.  The only difference seems to be that you are more likely to meet someone you know or who knows someone you know when sitting in the GP and hospital waiting rooms.  Social service activities are out of sight unless you are personally involved, and then national laws, inspection processes and mindsets are followed.  There are no care homes in the parish, so those who are unable to look after themselves or be looked after have to move away.

So, top-down systems prevail here with the associated bureaucracy. Much the same as anywhere else.  Therein lies the problem.  Radical change cannot occur here or anywhere else without dismantling national standards and ways of doing things. It is a change that has to come from the top.

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Left or right, up or down?

The ‘rules’ which determine the modus operandi of local bureaucracies are set by laws made by the government at some time in the past, subsequently codified by the civil service as a basis for local implementation.

Much of how we are made to live now is a result of Acts of Parliament passed by the Attlee government in 1945/46 with subsequent minor changes which didn’t alter the fundamental Fabian inspired concepts of the initial enactment, such as in welfare and health.  Political changes in government and locally, left to right and so on, don’t change how things are done locally.  It is a flatland of sameness which does not alter with time.  A national revolution in thinking and practice would be needed to alter how local services are planned and managed.

Over the year,s the day-to-day activities of the bureaucracies, within their established legal frameworks and practice codes, have become professionalised, leading to technocratic languages and processes which only those in the know can understand.  In effect, the professions have become established as the foot-soldiers of bureaucracy, with aims and practices which enable them to do what they want, despite any political notions that there may be alternative ways.

The technocratic procedures officers follow are so embedded that they are taught in universities as the proper way to do things, leading to professional qualification.

Local politicians do not realise that they have so little power over what happens on the ground.

In looking generally for new ways of doing things, there seems to me to be an obsessive preoccupation with finding a centre ground, between left and right.  If the ground level effect of changes between left and right have little effect, I suggest that a middle ground would be no different. They are all the same.

If it is the command and control nature of the established isms which now need to be questioned, we must begin to think in a different dimension.  Up or down maybe?  Upwards towards totalitarianism and downwards to local community control.


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Janet’s Story

Those who believe in the decentralisation of public services do so because it is thought that better decisions will be made the closer service users are to decision-makers. Not so.

Take social services as an example, where you might expect social workers to be at the interface between service users and the care system.

I have just come across an example of how the social services system has not worked for one resident in a care home (the name has been changed).  What happened to Janet had nothing to do with her needs; it was entirely, to do with how the social service management process works.

Janet’s care home is in a rural village.  Her parents live in a village, about 20 minutes away by car.  Janet has lived in the countryside all her life and her parents are as happy as can be with where she lives.  It is a home specially designed for people with severe learning and other disabilities.  Janet can neither talk nor understand what is said to her.  She is in a wheelchair full-time.

Janet’s parents cannot care for their daughter in their own home because she needs twenty-four hour care.  They visit her at least once a week, buy nice clothes for her, and keep an eye on her room in ways which carers rarely do. They assumed that this is how things would be for the foreseeable future.

Then one day, out of the blue, the social services bureaucracy informed Janet’s parents that they didn’t think that Janet was getting out enough into the community (a phrase commonly used of people in care) and needed to have more stimulation.  They said that she would get this if she was in a care home in an urban area. Urban-based bureaucrats seem to think like this, about those who live in country areas.

Janet’s parents are devastated.  They are thinking people who hadn’t realised that the local authority had the power to over-rule their own views on their daughter’s care.  Had they known this earlier they could have got a Court of Protection order to make them responsible as court-appointed deputies, for deciding where she should live.  But this is a process which takes time and money and it is not generally known about.  Moreover, it is not in the interest of social services to tell service users about deputyship, because it would forego their own power to decide such things.

Janet’s parents were offered a number of homes, all in urban areas; some more than two hours drive away. They are too far away for her parents to visit regularly (her mother does not drive in cities).

The underlying assumption by the social service bureaucracy in this case, and in others I have come across, is that parents’ views of where and how their adult children should be cared for can be, and often are, over-ruled.

All of this is nothing to do with the politics of the local authority.  The Mental Capacity Act 2005 enables anyone to become a court-appointed deputy and make decisions for someone who lacks mental capacity.  It is a well-meaning Act which is totally undermined, in the case of people with learning disabilities, by the bureaucracy.  It beggars belief that parents have the legal potential to be empowered on behalf of their siblings and themselves, and yet be unaware of this because it is not in the interest of the bureaucracy to tell them about it, and help them to exercise their power.

No matter how close bureaucrats are to those they serve, they are still bureaucrats. They are also all-powerful.

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Seeing things from the bottom-up

Things look different from bottom up. So when we think about the future, we have to do so fully conscious of the assumptions we make about our own prejudices.  Where do you sit?  Looking down on us below or up to those above us?  It took me almost a life-time to recognise this in myself.

For over fifty years, after leaving school in 1953, I wasn’t conscious of how I was thinking about how things were.  It was a mindless journey in which my biases and prejudices were implicit and driven by my working life.  Now, in so-called ‘old age’, I have discarded my top-down mindset and I like to think that I am able to base my thinking on my personal values and prejudices, and see things from the bottom-up.

In hindsight, the actual experiences of my working life have enabled me to see how different kinds of systems of governance work and the outcomes they have on those they are supposed to serve.

My experience of institutional life began in a very small village school of children aged four to 15, where the Lord of the Manor (a lady) visited us on high days and holidays, such as Empire Day (Queen Victoria’s birthday) . Then, after grammar schooling and training as a municipal engineer, I climbed the hierarchical ladders of six local authorities and a university.  That was enough bureaucracy for me and, from 1983 onwards, my wife and I ran a business, from a cottage in the Welsh Marches.

As a bureaucrat, I was content with my lot.  The further up the ladders I went. the more control I thought I had over the eventual outcomes.  And the higher I rose I discovered (albeit subconsciously) that, to go further up, I had to behave in ways which convinced those above me to let me have more staff below me, to enhance my prospects of further promotion or a better job in another authority.  My work at the lower levels was to design projects, which then went up the hierarchy for approval at each level.

These mindless systems use predefined objectives, standards and processes, mostly sent down from government and generally seen as the proper way to do things.   The outcomes ‘on the ground’ may be subject to consultation with so-called ‘service users’, but it is the top-down processes which determines what happens.  The services people get are nothing to do with what they want; it is a quirk of how the top-down management processes operate.

Seen from above, the system seems to work well, even in times of financial constraint, because there are ways to hide underlying problems. Increasing indebtedness or endless reorganisation has been the story of UK public service development, with top-down hierarchies getting bigger and top manager’s salaries and pensions increasing.  Not just public service organisations, but also the private sector organisations spawned by public service spending.  Which is not a criticism; this is the way it is.

Then I got to know the small Channel Island of Sark and was the Planning Adviser to the Island government for a few years, just before the feudal system of governance and land ownership began to be dismantled.  So I learnt about Ordinances, the Treizieme, Tenements and Clameur de Haro.  Understanding how this tiny independent island works has helped me become aware of my own long-held top-down prejudices.

Imagine a community of 600 people, making their own laws and putting them into day-to-day practice, with no interference from above, and you will begin to understand.  In finding out how a bottom-up system actually works, I now realise that – if fundamentally different ways of doing things are to be found – those involved must be aware of their prejudices and be open about them with others.

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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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Bigger but not Better

A symptom of decreasing community participation in public service planning and management is the increasing size of public service organisations. It has now reached a stage where there is no effective public participation, just consultation and not much of that.

This is not a new phenomenon; it has been going on in UK local government for over 40 years. In 1974 the small rural and urban district councils and the city councils were taken over by larger district councils and county councils, and the city councils such as Southampton became district councils. Further reorganisations in 1986, 1992 and 2000 followed the same path, albeit with a few contrary politically inspired hiccups. Unitary authorities now rule the roost, with some odd results such as Hereford City Council retaining its name and becoming a parish council.

The current situation is of all-powerful local authorities, whose bureaucratic culture and management is beyond the ken of their service users and barely understood by the local politicians confronted with endless bureaucratic tomes.

In the NHS it is going on, with NHS Trusts joining up with like-minded trusts and with local authority social services departments. Again there is little awareness or understanding amongst those being served. This time the process of increasing bigness seems to be faster than in the past and from below more difficult to understand, even if you are aware it is happening.

Don’t try and understand the following example of what is happening around here, because hardly any of us can and most are unaware of what seems like endless muddling. In 2011 the Wye Valley NHS Trust was established by merging Hereford Hospitals NHS Trust with Herefordshire Primary Care Community Trust and Herefordshire Council’s Adult Social Care Services. In November 2016 it was announced that the Wye Valley NHS Trust was to set up an “alliance” with South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust. Then in September 2017 it was announced that two NHS trusts which serve Gloucestershire and Herefordshire will merge, and the 2gether NHS Foundation Trust and Gloucestershire Care Services NHS Trust will join together.  These are all clips from the local newspaper.  I’m not sure if I have got it right, but that is how things are when you don’t understand!

Why would NHS Trusts in Herefordshire and Warwickshire have an “alliance” when they don’t even adjoin each other?  At least one of the trusts provides services funded by both the NHS and the local authority.  Lots of liaison meetings there methinks.

As these organisations become bigger they become increasingly remote from those they claim to serve.  England is run by an all-powerful bureaucratic system.  It is a system which is impossible to dismantle, because of the array of those with vested interests in keeping the current system.  Vested interests not only within the public sector but also outside, as a result of outsourcing to private sector organisations, which are themselves getting bigger.

This is nothing to do with left, right or centre.  It is how things become when political control is lost.

Can it ever end?

There is a tiny hint of things to come, maybe.  Our red telephone box is now a library filled with books and run by local residents.  Apparently there are more than 4000 phone boxes across the UK which have been taken over by local people running all kinds of enterprises wanted locally.  Local participation free of all consultation from above.  Bravo!

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