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Successful Brexit negotiations cannot be conducted in public

Paul Finch

We as architects wouldn’t want to make deals in full public glare, so why should the politicians who are trying to tackle Brexit? says Paul Finch

Architects spend much of their time negotiating. Whether it is with clients, planners, community representatives, contractors or fellow professionals, it is part and parcel of the designer’s life, and runs parallel to the collaboration that is an additional necessary factor to achieve anything in the built environment.

I have been pondering what would happen if negotiations in respect of building projects were undertaken under the conditions now surrounding those hardy souls/unfortunate fall guys who are trying to deal with Brexit.

The first rule of diplomacy concerns confidentiality: you cannot conduct negotiations in public, since this means that what is said is merely an announcement of an aspiration, a threat, or, at worst, mere posturing. The phenomenon of the observer having an effect on the observed becomes all too clear. As a general rule, the media has nothing positive to contribute to this sort of process because it can never really know whether its sources of partial information are being informative or manipulative. 

The phenomenon of the observer having an effect on the observed becomes all too clear

Much of the laughable coverage of the Brexit talks suffers from this. Different sources have their opinions and comments reported at face value, as though the sources were themselves dispassionate observers rather than committed players. The result is a huge volume of non-stories masquerading as important updates: EU/UK negotiators ‘fall out’ over this or that; EU/UK ‘intransigence’ delaying agreement; any deal better than no deal (a particularly mind-numbing proposition for anyone who has ever actually negotiated anything); planes will apparently be grounded, the sky will fall in and increasing food prices will mean famine. Yeah, sure. 

When you listen to the Today programme on Radio 4, doing a good impression of Psychic News as it tells you what is going to happen in the future, bear in mind that you are not listening to reporting and analysis of what has actually happened (so old-fashioned), but a series of predictions based on the ideology of ‘people like us’. A good guide to the validity of these news stories is to ask whether it is the opposite which would really be newsworthy. Is it really news that John McDonnell, the man whom Ken Livingstone sacked from the Greater London Council for being too left-wing, says the government is getting it all wrong over Brexit negotiations? Of course it isn’t. What would be news would be an admission by Corbyn, McDonnell and the gang that they oppose the EU but can’t admit that under current circumstances. 

That is the political context in which negotiations are taking place. Decades ago, as Father of the Chapel (as the National Union of Journalists described locally elected representatives), I negotiated many ‘house agreements’ with decent (but tough) managements. The idea of trying to do this in public would have been absurd, and I therefore sympathise with those toughing it out in Brussels. They deserve support, not sniper attacks from disappointed Remnants. 

In their own negotiations, do architects assume that they are all-knowing, beyond criticism, and uninterested in other views? Not if they want to stay in business. Do they want to conduct their discussions in public, with a running commentary from the media? No. Do they appear publicly intransigent while negotiations are still ongoing? No.

This might explain why the three practices who were working on improvement schemes for Kensington & Chelsea council estates (pre-Grenfell) have said nothing about the process. I understand from council sources that demolition was not the underlying strategy, but rather some densification on a mixed-tenure basis. You might have thought this would be a good thing, and I urge the council to tell us what has happened to this initiative. It sounds like news.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I can't help thinking that the concept of 'successful Brexit negotiations' might prove to be about as credible as successful US intervention in Vietnam in the 1960's.

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  • As Architects we are constantly reminded that we need to engage the public to help create successful change/development. People aren't asking for a deal made in full public glare, they are asking that the single biggest economic, political and cultural event of our lifetimes be publicly engaging, not just to be told that our politicians have our best interests at heart. Fox, Johnson, Gove and Davis only ever seem to have their own interests and pockets at heart.

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