The Story Of A Town Council: Democracy In Action

I was reminded of this story by a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday.

I used to live on a road that was a mix of residential housing, factories and offices. Almost across the road was a sizeable factory that closed a few years after I moved in. For many years it lay derelict, a waste of useful land and a loss of jobs to the town.

It wasn’t even as useful as another disused factory on the same road, which was discovered to be a cannabis farm.

One day I discovered that there was planning permission requested to bulldoze the site and build a data centre. The intricacies of planning permission meant that although this factory was almost across the road from us, and the construction traffic would pass our house, as would the staff when built, we weren’t informed. I discovered the plans by accident; however people on a street that overlooked to site were informed, even though they never needed to travel along our road. I’ll come back to these residents shortly.

So I downloaded the plans from the local district council’s web side and was impressed. The plans outlined a fantastic glass and steel state-of-the-art data centre that would employ 25-50 people. There were details about acoustic predictions of the chillers, how they would minimise the local impact of production and projections of traffic to-and-from the site. I had some questions about the acoustic predictions, especially when operating the backup generators, so I thought I’d attend the Town Council public meeting that was scheduled to discuss it.

This brings me back to the residents of the adjacent road. The way I found out about this planned data centre was a flyer put through my door from a residents’ association from the adjacent road: they were raising attention as they wanted to prevent the project going ahead. This was astonishing for a number of reasons:

– They weren’t affected by construction traffic
– They weren’t affected by the employees driving to-and-from work
– They weren’t affected by the sight of a derelict factory on their road

So I attended the Town Council meeting to hear the case put and how the decision would be made; a large number of the adjacent road’s residents attended too. Unusually for a council meeting they allowed the chair of this residents’ association to speak. He gave a short speech outlining their objections and was supported by angry shouts from his associates. The council briefly discussed this, led by the local councillor, followed by the chairperson calling for a vote.

I’m sure that you can imagine the result. They voted against it: a new hi-tech business in the area; local employment; and the removal of an unsightly derelict factory. These objections were led by a group that had no direct impact by the new building: typical of many special interest groups.

This just supports my distain for democracy, tyranny of the majority. As David Friedman has highlighted many times before, governments take from the taxpayer and give to vocal special interests. This was an even worse case where the council takes business rates and a share of local council taxes, but is actually limiting its own tax base by protectionism. It was preventing new business establishing just to keep a very small vocal set of voters happy, who have virtually no direct interest.

Democracy stinks.

After the vote had been taken and recorded the following conversation happened:

Chair: “So what is a data centre?”
[lengthy pause]
Councillor: “Er, I think it’s where computer companies store hard disksā€¦”

Amazing. Democracy in action.

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3 thoughts on “The Story Of A Town Council: Democracy In Action

  1. Sounds like a city council meeting to me! What was the reason for their objection? Just because they didn’t want the construction?

  2. Don’t try and watch “The Planners” on the BBC. The planners usually come across as quite sensible. It’s the NIMBYs who are the real problems.

    Classic case in Cheshire somewhere. Largish village surrounded by fields and nature. Small overgrown plot of land surrounded by buildings. Planning application to build 7 retirement homes on it. Rejected because they (the vocal minority in the village) didn’t want to lose the last piece of greenness in the village. In a village surrounded by fields!

  3. Isn’t it the case that actually it’s not necessarily the majority mob rule that always stops things (such as this) going ahead, but a very outspoken minority. It reminds me of when certain things get banned in the media after ‘record complaints’. In actual fact, most people didn’t complain, but either they didn’t feel motivated to defend something, or it just got shot down without them even knowing. I think when the opinions aired really reflects a wider opinion, it usually gets a bit more balanced. Focus groups get too focused. They should be diluted with people who are less involved emotionally but just as practical or capable as anyone else.

    I personally like to see brave and experimental architecture (for various reasons I think are important) but brilliant ideas get vetoed all the time in the name of someone or others idea of ‘good taste’. The Sainsbury’s Wing of The National Gallery could have been a world landmark. The various proposals were astonishing. In the end they settled for the dullest and most conservative, which fits in so well that it practically vanishes. Missed opportunity really, thanks to Prince Charles butting in on behalf of representing those with ‘good taste’. If he’d been around in the 17th century, there may have been no dome on St Pauls either.

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