I had a meeting
yesterday earlier today with a former colleague and some of his associates to talk about a project I was involved in a few years ago (when I was still a wage slave) to improve the Market Place in a small country town. In reviewing with them what had been involved in getting to a scheme on the ground I was amazed at the complexity of the process and at the number of ‘actor’s involved.
For the area in question the County, District and Town Councils all owned land, for different purposes. On top of them are the numerous other agencies with rights over our streets – utilities like phone, gas, water, cable; bus companies, taxis, organisations like English Heritage, the list seems endless. This ignores the many departments within large organisations, some of which can paradoxically now be outside the organisation. My local County Council for example has out-sourced all its highway design and maintenance to a commercial company, who took on former council staff, rent space in County Hall and operate in many ways as if still a Council Department – causing much confusion in the process. Unfortunately many of these departments still have the ‘silo’ mentality that prevailed when they were organised as professional departments. and thus have a very proprietorial attitude to ‘their’ patch. There are also many other non-statutory bodies – conservation and environmental pressure groups, bodies representing the disabled etc.
This makes simple things like redesigning the paving and lighting in public spaces, enormously complex and time consuming. We estimated that this particular job took something like nine years to completion – and that takes no account of earlier abortive attempts. Some of the problems we were trying to deal with had been highlighted in the 1960s and 1970s by John Betjeman and Alec Clifton-Taylor, but were still there in the 1990s.
Some but not all of this difficulty can be ascribed to the need to meet regulatory standards of one sort or another although sometimes these alleged standards are not standards at all, but have acquired de facto status as such. Fear of litigation is one driver but also at work is I suppose a tendency to do what worked before without thinking about it too much so that ‘what worked before’ acquires a standing that it doesn’t really have.
Ownership was another factor, in this case complicated even further by the relationship of the land owned to the statutory function being delivered. In some cases the ‘silo’ manager gave a higher priority to the function in isolation and failed to recognise the wider context in which it was being delivered – in this case a multi-purpose urban space. It took a lot of effort to get these people to see that their proprietory objectives were actually better met by working with others in collaboration.
There are probably around 2–3000 market towns in the UK – at least – and many of these will have centres that are not so attractive as they could be. This has real economic consequences, especially as big box retailers move into towns they wouldn’t have looked at twice 10 years ago. There is an urgent need to look at ways in which these complexities can be reduced to the minimum.
EDIT - this got posted by BlogJet rather than being saved as a draft. I've left it up however and will come back to the conclusions later - looking I hope at ownership of the street as well as at regulation.