The lessons of Troughgate for planning
Town & Country Planning, June 2009
A Troughgate, they are starting to call it. The parliamentary expenses story is moving so fast, as I write, that this column may be wholly overtaken by events. It might even be called something else by then.
But, as of today, the main feeling it gives me, as well as enjoying the stories about the moat and duck island on expenses, is a whiff of nostalgia for my own first years working in a local newspaper. I remember my editor flinging my expenses claim back unsigned onto my desk.
“For God’s sake,” he would say. “Do you want to ruin it for everyone else? Add some bloody noughts.”
Yes, Troughgate is – above all else – a wonderful example of the great English tradition of fiddling our expenses. Or, as you might put it, the perks of the job.
A generation or more ago, there was hardly a job which didn’t have some perk attached to it. Nor was this some kind of trade union perversity: there was a medieval tradition which allotted to agricultural workers the surplus of the food from the fields.
There is nothing wrong with this, it seems to me. Quite the reverse. In fact, British life would be poorer without that labyrinthine system of ‘grace and favour’ apartments for obscure servants of the establishment. You can almost understand, in the middle of this, how our parliamentarians could tiptoe into such disaster.
Yet not quite. There must be hardly a word on the whole affair still unprinted, but what I find most peculiar about it all is why the political parties took no evasive action at all. Here they are, whole Westminster bar-rooms full of political antennae like razors, yet even some of those at the forefront of campaigning for openness seem to have misjudged the public mood.
Only when the first expense claims were published in the Daily Telegraph did the whips offices start desperately phoning round to discover what else was likely to emerge, hoping they could possibly carve out a public position which would not leave their colleagues out to dry.
The truth is that our parliamentarians have presided over a huge shift in the perks culture in our workplaces over two decades. They have ushered in our useless systems of centralised targets and delusory efficiency – which have long since excised padded expenses from our national life – but never quite applied that to their own lives.
So the central question at the heart of all this is not so much why MPs believed themselves immune, but why is our parliamentary system so appallingly bad at looking ahead.
Even when it must have been obvious what would happen, what would be revealed, and what people would think – our political machines took no action. In short, why do we have a presiding institution which is quite so bad at planning?
One reason has to be the shape of Parliament. Its propensity to give absolute power to those who win the slenderest majority has always had a blurring effect on its occupants. The two skills encouraged in parliamentarians are: (a) How to do absolutely nothing about a quite obvious trend for decades in a row, and (b) How to ride roughshod over the opposition when you change your mind.
But that doesn’t seem quite enough of an explanation. The terrifying blindness of parliament seems me to be a side-effect of over-centralised power.
They have no political or constitutional requirement to look beyond the walls of their ivory tower, at least beyond the three-fold institutions that rule on our behalf – Westminster, Whitehall and the City.
They have no need to inform themselves how the world actually works, beyond their symbolic parliamentary excursions around the world. They have no great desire to keep in touch with shifts in people’s thinking, and of course they couldn’t see people’s likely reaction to their widescreen TVs clearly enough.
What is terrifying about Troughgate is not so much the vision of greed – and let’s not forget that we need our elected representatives to live in two places at once – but their abject failure to see the world as it is, and their miserable failure therefore to plan. Even when their own futures were on the line.
I’m reminded what MP Richard Bacon said about the propensity of government IT projects to hurtle towards disaster in the same way. “In the public sector," he said, "you get this willingness to grind onwards towards the abyss.”
I suppose it might be possible to argue that you can do planning from the centre, using the screeds of data that pours out of the universities and research centres. Stalin certainly thought so.
But the lessons of targets over the past decade is that the data is rarely accurate – Goodhart’s Law suggests that it will never be so if it is used to control people. And even when it is accurate it requires some sense of life at local level to make sense of it, to work out what causes what.
That is, in the end, why planning is never very effective when it is done from ivory towers. The scary vision of just how hopeless our elected representatives are at planning, even in their own interests, seems to me to be another nail in the coffin of our miserable ineffectual centralised systems.
But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I.