There's a whole bunch of stuff needing to be done on the farm right now. The last of the cows looks like she's about to drop her calf any minute, I've got to clear another four acres of gorse, there's a hole in the fence between one of my fields and my brother's woods that needs a more permanent repair to keep the cattle out, and sometime - if it ever stops raining for more than a day at a time - I need to make hay.

So instead I'm sitting here, typing this. Why? Because I'm waiting for Fife Council to phone to discuss my planning application to build a house. They were meant to call at half past two. If there's no call by three I will call them myself, at which point I've no doubt I'll be told that the planning officer dealing with my case is off sick or something.

My sister was up for a visit earlier in the week, and my planning application was one of many topics of conversation that came up. My brother made the depressing but all too true observation that most of his job these days involves, in one way or another, fighting the endless bureaucracy of the state. Planning permission, building regulations, sewage regulations, water management. Whenever you want to do something, there's inevitably a dozen or more hoops you have to jump through before you can go ahead. Or more likely be told, sorry, no (only without the sorry bit.)

I wanted to put up a couple of medium size wind turbines on the farm. The income they would have generated would have allowed me to diversify into wool production and perhaps employ a few people. Because some genius has declared this area to be of special landscape value (whatever that's supposed to mean) I was told no. Effectively in this corner of Fife, any development is severely curtailed, if not effectively banned altogether.

But it's not just this corner of Fife. An application for three large turbines for the Newburgh Community Trust was turned down recently, despite the overwhelming support of the majority of people in the town. The local councillors chose to ignore their constituents, who had asked them to approve the plan, and denied it permission on the grounds that they didn't want to set a precedent for other applications elsewhere in the county, something that might be unpopular and lose them votes. That isn't actually a valid reason for refusing a planning application, so it's going to appeal, but it serves as a good example of just how broken the system is.

And it's not just in Fife that things are broken, either. All over the UK, projects are delayed or abandoned entirely because it is simply too much effort to try and get permission for them - and you can't do anything these days without permission from someone. When major infrastructure projects do get approved, they end up costing double, triple or even ten times the original estimate, largely because of the need to make changes dictated by teams of bureaucrats doggedly sticking to the letter of regulations no-one can even remember making, let alone why they were made.

And the worst of it is that the system is engineered never to get better. If I don't do my job, I don't get paid. If I worked in a factory or a supermarket and failed to turn up, I'd get the boot. Simple. If someone in the planning department (and many other departments, but planning is something I've become rather too acquainted with of late) doesn't do their job, misses key deadlines or fails to return a scheduled call, they get sent on training. So instead of catching up with the backlog, they get taken away from the work for a few days, thus allowing the backlog to grow ever larger. Brilliant. Meanwhile politicians, whose sole purpose seems to be to do and say whatever they can to ensure they're elected the next time, make short-term policy decisions based on perceived popularity rather than and real understanding of what needs to be done.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of saying the main reason the country is in the state it's in is not to do with evil bankers (although I dare say they've not helped anyone except themselves). The reason we're in the worst recession in living memory is because the machinery of state is buggered, big time. There is way too much of it, getting in the way, interfering with things that really ought to be left to ordinary people to make their own minds up about. 

Of course, it's one thing to say that, quite another to do anything about it. Such is the size of the public sector, and so entwined with every aspect of the economy, that slimming it down inevitably has a negative effect. People also get a little upset if you start taking things away from them that they've grown accustomed to having for free. Politicians know this, which is why they would much rather promise more stuff than less. There was a time when the Tories were reputedly the party of small government, but it was always smoke and mirrors. The state has grown inexorably under all governments since WWII, and even the current round of 'cuts' is aimed at reducing staff numbers rather than cutting what they actually have to do. So instead of ten planning officers struggling to wade through the bureaucratic mess that has become of the process we now have five drowning in a sea of paperwork they can never hope to catch up with. 

We need teachers and nurses and doctors, soldiers, sailors and airmen. The state is still the best way to provide universal education, healthcare and defence. I'm sure there are other things too - the police, for instance. What I don't think we need is an army of paper-shufflers making sure that all the pints served in pubs are the same size, or that every possible avenue of enquiry and discussion has been followed, several times, before a planning application can be grudgingly allowed. A truly forward-thinking government would be paring away the unnecessary layers of bureaucracy rather than bludgeoning the state into submission, and the country and economy with it.

Any ideas on what kind of government we have?

P.S. The planning department did eventually phone, but only after I'd tried to phone them, found their phone line faulty, and emailed them my query instead.

Also the cow calved.


terlee said…
You can't get permission to build your house, but "they" can waste millions on a Parliament building and a tram system that no one wanted. I don't see how to change things for exactly the reasons you posted. Hopeless really.

So? Can you build your house? And is the calf doing fine?
Jim Warmke said…
I've never been to Scotland and would guess that the weather couldn't be more different than Florida, but we seem to have the "if it would quit raining for more than a day I need to make some hay" in common. You seem to be ahead of us on government buffoonery but it's not for lack of trying on the part of our bureaucrats. While they all agree that we of the proletariat must seek their permission to breath in and out it is still the case that most small farmers exist without the state even being aware of it. Of course that means that we can't collect whatever subsidies the are passing out currently, but making my living in the actual marketplace lets me sleep better at night than feeding at the public trough ever could. Hand in there!
Jim Warmke said…
I meant to write "Hang in there!"

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