Committee Meetings

Yesterday there was a local Planning Committee meeting at the community centre. It was open to the public so I decided to go and observe what it was all about. To sum it up, it wasn’t what I was expecting, and to be honest there were even a couple of social differentiations that kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

When I arrived, there were three tables set up in a U-shape on one end of the room while, on the other side, were two even rows of chairs for general seating. Basing where I needed to sit on the level of formal-dress (the casual clothing wearers were in “the bleachers” while the suit-and-tie types were at the table), I headed for the chair rows and made myself comfortable. As I listened to discussions amongst the people around me, I quickly discerned that they were only there for their own specific planning projects and (let me put this in all caps for emphasis) NOTHING ELSE MATTERED TO THEM.

When I was in my late teens, my parents would take me to planning meeting things in the area when I was growing up, and the format was something more like a round-table discussion about what was going on and how the people affected felt about it and what could be done to appease the masses.

Not so much here; while people were invited to state their cases if they so chose or to list their grievances, for the most part it wasn’t jo-public speaking, but the committee members leading, judging and dictating to the masses. Really, if they had put jo-public in a room behind a double-sided mirror, it would have had the same affect – we might as well have been with how excluded it felt to be sitting in the audience while the committee conversed amongst themselves.

So, given my own, otherwise good, past experiences – I found this… well, to be honest, I found it somewhat demeaning. I can’t say how the members of this planning committee think or feel, but the message they conveyed with how the meeting was held and the seating arrangement said to me “You (jo-public) are inferior to us (the committee).”

The only time we, said public, were addressed was when what I assume to be the committee head – as he was leading the group and directing the meeting – asked us what items we were interested in hearing about. They got a good chuckle (it seems it was funny to them) when I said I was there “only to observe.” Once they knew which items were of interest to those who were part of the public in attendance they covered those items first…

Which, in fairness, isn’t a bad thing. It allowed them to hear what they wanted to know and get on with their lives, but at the end of that only two people of the public (see: Me + one other) remained to listen to the rest. I don’t know what is more depressing; the fact that the Committee expects that no one in the community cares or the fact that they are, basically, correct on that assumption. Ouch.

I did learn a lot about the overall purpose of the Planning Committee that night. In the UK, councils  must review and approve any and ALL planning projects (public and private) before they can start.  If you want to remodel your kitchen, you need to get the plan approved by the committee, if you want to put an extension or build a garage on your property you need it approved by the committee.

And heaven help you if you either A: get approved but don’t follow the plan; or B: try for a plan that was attempted by a neighbour but was rejected before. It won’t go well for you, as I heard in the meeting, they don’t much like people who pull things like that and they aren’t very willing to bend and flex with individual circumstances.

“…If we decide to approve this,” said one committee member regarding one such instance where someone wanted to build an extension in front of their house when their neighbour had been rejected for the same plan a year prior, “we have to consider that we’ll be setting precedent.

Yep, a precedent, like it’s something vile and ghastly (kind of like finding that one leaf in the bag of spinach that went goopy before the rest… the hard way).

Now most of the committee advice is fair and sound, that I won’t argue; despite how I felt with how they delivered their judgements regarding the plans in question, I did not object to the reasoning behind it (aside from that whole precedent bit – but, seriously, come on!). They tried to keep into consideration the limits of the property and how any changes affect the neighbours – which is something that seems to matter an awful lot to people in the UK.

I know there are some in the US that take things to this extreme (I am instantly reminded of one case where I knew someone who was complaining about their next door neighbour who had put up a tall and solid wood fence in the back of their house, as though it was a deliberate affront to them personally: “They aren’t being good neighbours,” was one comment that was given), but on a whole most of my experiences in the US have been more along the lines of: so long as it happens on someone else’s property, it isn’t any of my business. It’s their own fault if their bedroom window comes into alignment with my bathroom and they see my chunky-monkey when they roll over in the morning.

It kind of blows my mind how possessive people can be when it comes to privacy; the expectation  seems to be for a lot of people in the UK that it is your god-given right to have complete privacy in your own back yard and they will go to almost obscene lengths to achieve it.

Tall wooden fence? Try 4-foot tall cement blockade with stone planters on top housing perfectly manicured topiaries from H-E-double-toothpicks. They are just a drawbridge and a mote away from literally making their house into their own fortified castle.

And if the neighbours didn’t complain, they would probably get away with it more often, which, really, is kind of why this Planning Committee (for all of it’s sweets and sours) exists. Without it, this place would be seriously ugly, and I’m not just talking about the aesthetics.

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