Choose the topics of interest

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Sark: A State run from the bottom up

There are few examples in Europe of political entities – States, Regions, Cities or Parishes – which are governed from the bottom up. The small Channel Island of Sark is one such. In looking for possibilities of system change we should be aware of existing ways of doing things which are outside our experience, which may trigger our thinking in new directions.

Sark is a Royal fiefdom established in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth the First. Until 2008 the Island was managed on the Monarch’s behalf by the Lord of the Manor (the Seigneur) and his 40 Tenants who each had an obligation to a place on Chief Pleas, the governing body of the island, and by 12 elected Deputies introduced in 1921. The Tenants administered the island, as individuals without payment, making laws and managing their implementation. It was a system which looked towards the long term future of their heirs, as well as managing the day-to-day running of the Island.

Domestic properties are leased from the Tenants, with leaseholders having a declining asset. At present they can never own the land because there is no freehold ownership (and no mortgages).

In 2008 the Island held its first fully democratic General Election, as a result of which governance of the Island passed from the Tenants and Deputies to 28 elected Conseillers. This can be seen as a step towards dismantling the feudal system, with land reform now on the agenda.

Chief Pleas has five constitutional officers: The Speaker, The Seneschal (the Judge/Magistrate); The Prévôt (the Sheriff of the Seneschal’s Court and of Chief Pleas); The Greffier (the Clerk to the Court and to Chief Pleas); and the Treasurer. Since 2013 they have been supported by a Senior Administrator (a professional Civil Servant): an appointment which can be seen as the first step towards establishing a civil service. Day-to-day official business is undertaken by the Conseillers sitting in ten committees.

Chief Pleas operates with a budget surplus and has no debt.

The resident population is about 600. Anyone with residency rights in the UK Common Travel Area can move to the Island. In practice, only those with secured employment or income earned from elsewhere move to the Island, because there is no Welfare State to support those who cannot pay their own way.

Residents are taxed on their perceived capital, sometimes referred to as a “Personal Capital Tax”, currently capped at £6,500. In contrast to the UK there is little point on Sark in displaying your wealth. Far better to have a nice garden.  Income is not taxed.

A landing fee paid by boat passengers, in effect a charge to enter the island, and the Impôt (a levy on alcohol and tobacco) fund the public services.

There is no National Health Service, residents pay for their health-care by membership of an insurance scheme. Chief Pleas provide a doctor’s house and surgery free of charge and pay the doctor a retaining fee. The doctor dispenses the medicines and makes a charge on patients for consultation.

Compulsory education has existed on Sark since 1830 (some fifty years before England). The teachers’ salaries paid by Chief Pleas provide schooling from age 5 to 15.

The only motorised vehicles allowed on the Island are tractors, which are limited in number and size, and electric invalid carriages.

There is no mains water or drainage, both of which are the responsibility of individual householders, with bore holes and septic tank sewerage treatment systems. Mains electricity is provided by a family-owned electricity company, with its diesel power station.

All electric and telecommunications cables are laid underground, in contrast to rural areas in England where cables are above ground. There is no street lighting.

New house building is restricted to individuals who have been resident on the Island for at least 15 years and only persons with similar residential qualifications can occupy these houses.

Because residents move around the Island day-to-day on foot or cycle there is “continuous” one-to-one contact and conversations, in a way that is physically impossible in a society dependent on motor cars. These informal conversations inevitably have an influence on formal decisions by Chief Pleas. So, there are just three upward-facing levels of governance: Individuals –> Chief Pleas Committees –> Chief Pleas.

The financial interests of “the poor” are looked after by the ‘Procureur of the Poor’ (an official position undertaken by a volunteer). This concentrates resources on those in greatest need. “Social care” is provided by relatives, friends and neighbours.

There is no VAT or any tax on sales or business profits. This, together with the absence of income tax, enables people to undertake work for each other and receive payments for their work in a way that is impossible in a State that requires all business and personal earnings to be declared.

Because there is no need to accommodate motorised vehicles, other than tractors, the scale of physical development on the Island is much less than in a car-dependent country. Domestic garages and drives to them are not needed. Junctions between lanes do not take up much space. Carriageway footpaths are not needed. Island deliveries are undertaken by carters.

During the year there are many fund-raising events including sheep racing, concerts and festivals of all kinds of music, including opera, with every opportunity being taken to raise money for Island projects and to subsidise the cost of medicines prescribed by the doctor.

In 2011, Sark was designated a Dark Sky Community and became the first Dark Sky Island in the world. This was achieved by adjusting all exterior lighting to be downward facing.

My judgement, as a visitor, is of a community which works well, despite interference from wealthy outsiders. I have many more friends and acquaintances on the Island than in my locality in England.

To me, there are three factors which have contributed to the well-being of the Island. (1) The protection of the island’s heritage and culture by families whose lineage date from the 16th century; (2) The prohibition of motor vehicles, other than tractors; (3) bottom-up law making and governance.

My concern is that the Island is on a path towards English-style top-down governance with personal and Chief Pleas indebtedness on the horizon,

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A mind in the making: From top-down objectivity to bottom-up mindfulness

When thinking about the future it is essential that we 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 50 years, after leaving school in 1953, I was not 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 4 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 enabled me to 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 sought, those involved must be aware of their prejudices and be open about them with others.


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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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Your mindset

We each have a mindset which is unique.  Your vested interests  and beliefs are perhaps the most important aspects of your mindset. Maintenance of your current position and promotion of your interests may be all-important.

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How you see things

You see things differently from anyone else. You may agree with others on a particular subject but you will do so for different reasons. It is your mindset which determines how you see things.

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There is no way to visualize bottom up thinking from the top down

From the bottom up everything is connected,  but you cannot see the connections from the top down.  You first have to focus on an element and then look at how it is connected to other elements.

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