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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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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