Monday, 14 July 2014

Hating the untidiness of whimsy - the curse of local councils


Control, direct, order, limit, ban, manage, prevent, dictate, regulate, licence, stop.

Sadly these are the words that best define much of local government - and us local councillors. This is what we do - we stand in the way of community, cooperation, choice, innovation and initiative. And we revel in it.

In a statement the city of Leawood issued to TODAY, an official said that a property maintenance code enforcement officer had noticed the bookshelf but "thought it was placed in the yard for pick up." Several days later, the officer received complaints about it and notified the family the structure violated a city ordinance that states “no detached structure, including garages, barns, sheds, greenhouses, above ground pools, or outbuildings, shall be permitted."

And what was it that so offended the officials of this Kansas town? It was one of these:

In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share.

A nine-year-old child had set one up in his yard. A little private initiative - done with hope and a smile - to build a local community. Stamped out by the council because some busybody 'complained' and some jobsworth decided the little box of books in the garden was an illegal structure.

Don't try to tell me that your council is immune from this obsession with tidiness and the tin-pottery of control. Here in Bradford you need a licence to have a village gala. Not for safety reasons but because the Council wants to 'exercise its market charter rights'. And your council will be the same - a little ban here, a stern letter there. Whether it's the spirited citizen who's told to stop mowing the verge outside his house or the children who are stopped from their little bit of guerrilla gardening, your local officials will react to any community initiative by either wanting to stop it happening or else to bring it within their control and regulatory orbit.

But, and this is important, those intrusive officials are only doing what they know people want. Every day they encounter people who would stop someone drinking quietly on a bench, prevent a second takeaway opening on the high street and ban any number of odd but essentially harmless activities. As Scott Doyon, in writing about the Little Boy with the Little Free Library observes, we really have a problem with whimsy - and certainly independently initiated whimsy in someone's garden:

The second error is that you add value to whimsy by making it more uniform and predictable when that’s actually the exact opposite of what happens. A Little Free Library, or any other inspired creative expression, is like a flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk. You don’t make it more palatable by camouflaging it as concrete.

If we want interesting places filled with interesting people doing interesting things then we have to stop doing what people who want boring places filled with boring people doing boring things want us to do. We - and that means political and community leadership - need to stop thinking that the role of the local parish, town, village or district council is to look sternly at whether someone should be allowed a house extension, to run a fair, to open a cafe or, madly, to want a shark on the roof.

Councils are filled with people who see the busy-ness of local community as a problem, who tut and frown at folk outside a pub drinking and laughing and who think only regulations, controls, bans and licences stand between civilisation and anarchy. And who hate the untidiness of whimsy.

This, more than anything else, is the curse of local government. We are wielders of the permit and the permission not huggers of the whimsical and weird. Perhaps we could change it round! The world would be more fun I think!


1 comment:

Scott said...

This made my day, Simon. Please come to the States and run for elected local office. If you did it on an itinerant basis, you could probably save quite a few towns in whatever time you have left. Godspeed!