Ian Martin lunches with the balaclava-wearing Amy Blackwater
More from: Localism: where did it all go wrong?
MONDAY. Summoned in conditions of great secrecy to the Department of Communities and Bins.
Imagine my surprise when I am ushered in to see the secretary of state himself, Wally Morecambe. He’s routinely described as ‘larger than life’ but it’s still a shock to meet him in the incontrovertible flesh. He’s bloody MASSIVE. He has the girth of a hot tub. It looks like an airbag’s gone off inside his head.
He’s inviting me to be part of the Big Society he says, offering me a copy of the revised Localism Bill and a custard doughnut. Obviously, localism will be a powerful tool in the community toolbox. It will enable local people to determine their fate without let or hindrance from local authorities, some of which remain stubbornly Labour-controlled. And he’s looking for someone willing to act as ‘moral narrator’ for the Bill, to smooth things over with the wider design and development community.
I accept the gig of course. Easy money. I don’t know where Morecambe’s getting his intelligence, but I’m really not expecting much moral opposition from architects. To anything, frankly.
TUESDAY. Lunch with my old friend Amy Blackwater, the environmental activist. Honestly, you’ve no idea how difficult it is to find a restaurant prepared to serve someone wearing a balaclava.
I need her to spell out the militant arguments against localism, just to get my bearings. She requires a) little prompting, b) a vegan buffet, c) two gallons of cider. ‘The whole thing’s a con, from top to bottom. The government says they want to empower communities. Bullshit. They want to empower capitalism. They say these new relaxed planning rules will allow development to respond to local needs. That is a BRECHTIAN LIE!’
I wonder what that means exactly, which just exasperates her. ‘It means, dummy, that if any of these puppet People’s Forums actually has the temerity to oppose a scheme, the developer will simply DISSOLVE that People’s Forum and elect another…’ And with that she drains her pint, burps through her balaclava, punches me much too hard on the shoulder and leaves. Bonkers Amy. Mad but true.
WEDNESDAY. Useful chat with Tim Burnish of the Entrepreneurial Association. He’s broadly in favour of localism as it essentially legitimises whatever it is that any entrepreneur wants to do, ever.
There was he says slight disquiet at the ‘sustainable development’ caveat attached to future planning permissions. Particularly as association members had been initially assured that the only condition would be a modest planning fee. But the government has now made it clear that sustainable just means doing your best not to go bankrupt before topping out.
THURSDAY. Working breakfast with ‘Spinning’ Jenny Hurlpool, who does PR for Inloco, one of the country’s leading planning providers.
She’s brutally honest. Her client ‘delivers multi-disciplinary solutions’, including outsourced planning services for councils who’ve decided to privatise everything. Much as people in the 1950s used to have all their teeth removed and replaced with dentures, to save any fuss in the future.
But what happens when inevitably Inloco’s development arm effectively applies for planning permission from itself? That poses a real problem says Jenny, as both sides of itself will be expected to offer an in-house discount, which is totally unfair as everyone has to make a killing. Correction, living.
FRIDAY. I’ve convened a focus group of architects. They’re impressively tetchy, but unhelpful.
Localism is an opportunity that must be grasped, is the consensus. Ask them what ‘opportunity’ means and they all look shifty and concede that it means possible work on the back of a development surge limited only by the imagination of clients’ accountants.
One geeky-looking bloke suggests architects might work for community groups opposing the localism juggernaut. Everyone else jeers and throws shoes at him until he leaves.
There is however one major moral objection to localism here. Given that the noble profession of architecture has been reduced to ‘securing planning permission for the client and spouting posh bollocks about the environment’, what happens when planning becomes a pushover and the client just hires an intern who can quote George Monbiot?
I then realise that what I took for hauteur is actually dignity in the face of death.
SATURDAY. Send a summary of my findings to Wally Morecambe: localism is now ready to be ‘rolled out’. National Localism!
SUNDAY. Self-loafing in the recliner.
An exciting opportunity to rebuild our entire moral infrastructure with localism