Thursday, 21 June 2018

Empire Building?

In 2013, the anthropologist David Graeber wrote a thought provoking essay which explored why in allegedly efficient capitalist systems, many people find themselves in jobs they admit are useless. This has recently been expanded into a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory in which the author speculates that one reason for the existence of such jobs is empire building.

All this clever stuff got the bean rattling and made me wonder about a certain organisation that I've often thought could largely disappear and nobody would notice. So after rooting around on the web, I've gathered these figures to compare the BA with the nine real national parks of England:

2011 Census
No. of
Peak District
Lake District
North York Moors
Broads Authority
Yorkshire Dales
South Downs
New Forest

From these figures the BA stands out as the smallest by area with the second fewest inhabitants yet has the fourth highest number of staff. Clearly the unique navigation responsibilities of the BA need to be accounted for, so time to consult the BA organogram.

The Construction, Maintenance and Environment Department has 41 staff, among whom it is only possible to find analogous roles in the true parks for the six environment officers. Up in the warm, the four people involved in toll collection also have unique jobs. Though the nine quay assistants also sound rather special, surely they are comparable to NP staff in information centres? So, with the special navigation responsibility accounting for around 40 jobs, that still means the BA employs more people than Dartmoor which is three times the size with five times the population. Food for thought....

So has an empire been built around managing the Broads? Well, lets look critically at another statutory function of the BA, conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads. A good starting point is to recall that the Broads Authority, especially Mark II (the current incarnation) was born out of an environmental crisis narrative. After 30 years that story has lapsed as various measures, some of which have had nothing to do with the BA (such as the EU Water Framework Directive) have successfully ameliorated many (but not all) of the problems originally identified. With currently at least 12% of the BA's executive area—and presumably the highest value bits from a biodiversity perspective—managed by the likes of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Natural England, National Trust, Ted Ellis Trust and Butterfly Conservation, surely the BA's environmental role should be tailing off? There may well be some truth in James Wentworth Day's anti-National Park rhetoric of the 1950s that all such an organisation would contribute to the fauna of Broadland was a new race of rats—bureaucrats.

In terms of the final statutory function, promoting the enjoyment of the Broads by the public, if a massive withdrawal from footpath maintenance and an ebbing interest in public staithes are replaceable by managing old gravel pits and a former wasteland on the fringes of Norwich (aka Whitlingham and Cary's Meadow) and the planned new cafe & education centre at Acle, then I better start believing Donald Trump. Let us also not forget that BA planning officers have only half the national benchmark number of cases to deal with and of course, compared to all normal planning authorities, there are no housing targets or big development schemes to occupy them. Makes you muse (on good days) that maybe they aren't being aggressive and meddlesome, just making work for themselves.

Why does all this matter? Setting aside the not insignificant questions around the use of both tax and toll payers monies to fund the empire and whether they are getting enough bang for their bucks, there are more fundamental issues here about governance or to put it more prosaically, whose interests is the beast serving?

Instead of answering my own question, I would like to draw attention to the opportunity all of us should have soon to express our views on such matters in the recently announced government review of the nation's National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The terms of reference include among others, examining how to improve their individual and collective governance and how well they support communities.

PS: JP have you ever considered an anonymous staff survey?