Devon CC – you couldn’t make it up

7 June 2014

In his masterpiece Little Dorrit Charles Dickens introduces us to the Circumlocution Office, an arm of government ‘one of the principles of [which was] never, on any account whatever to give a straightforward answer’. A penchant of Dickens was to give his characters names that were both fantastical and appropriate. I particularly like that of Mr Tite Barnacle a high official of the office; especially as sea creatures are not unconnected with the subject of this blog site.

You might think that the Circumlocution Office was a chilling joke that could not possibly exist in our free and transparent democracy. I have bad news for you. The Circumlocution Office has moved out of fictional Whitehall and is now based in reality at the headquarters of Devon County Council.

I wanted straightforward answers to straightforward questions about the Council’s responsibilities for the road and sea defences on the foreshore at Hallsands so I e-mailed Dr Phil Norrey, the chief executive (salary a miserly £149,995 per annum). He responded immediately promising that he would provide swift and straightforward answers. Almost three weeks later I had seen nothing (we really should pay him that £5 shortfall so he could afford a calendar) so I sent a reminder.

A response (a copy of which can be seen at DCC loses the plot) arrived written on behalf of Dr Norrey by a Mr David Whitton, head of Highways, Capital Development and Waste Management. Mr Whitton, incidentally, works for Ms Heather Barnes (salary a distinctly modest £129,995 – but also not worth that extra fiver, it seems) whose designation, and I am not making this up, is Strategic Director Place. A job title that leads me to conclude that either those in the higher reaches of management at County Hall are immune to mockery or they speak a different version of the English language to the rest of us.

Anyway, to return to circumlocution. At the end of winter we’d been told by our MP Dr Sarah Wollaston no less, that the council would abandon the road to its fate if there was further storm damage, so it was a surprise when Mr Whitton assured me that the council’s policy is now to maintain it for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, given the opportunity to state under what circumstances the road might be abandoned, he declined to name any.

Straight answers that contradict previous statements don’t qualify as full-blown circumlocution; that came with Mr Whitton’s statement about the council’s commitment to maintain the sea defences (rock armour in the jargon).

Because the council’s road runs close to the sea it needs protection from storms, so several years ago the Council put the rock armour in place. Not just protect but support as was demonstrated when this year’s winter storms washed away the rocks and large chunks of the road went with them. Sorry to keep pushing on this point, but, as you will see, it is not obvious to everyone that without the rock armour the road would wash away in heavy rain, let alone with a high spring tide and an easterly gale.

And the person to whom it is not obvious is, of course, Mr Whitton for he held that the rock armour was no longer the council’s responsibility and it could wash away for all he cared (he didn’t actually say the bit about caring, but he might as well have done). Mr Tite Barnacle himself couldn’t have come up with a better circumlocution: DCC will maintain the road for the foreseeable future, but not the structure that holds it up.

Of course I could be misjudging our modern-day Tite Barnacle. Can it be possible that he has magical powers and can maintain a road in full working order when the land beneath it has been washed away? If so, that’s good news for all of us suffering from potholes.

There was more and undoubtedly the plum was the excuse offered by Mr Whitton in response to a question about a recent planning application at Hallsands.

Five or six years ago a planning application was submitted for five new houses to replace the old Hallsands hotel. The site is on the foreshore and only the width of the road and the sea defence separates it from the beach. Another application covered two conversions further along. These were not so close to the water, but, like the five new builds, were served by the road.

It was obvious to anyone that without the sea defences the road and the houses wouldn’t be around for too long. Anyone except our modern Tite Barnacle that is, for when given the opportunity to comment on the applications, he said nothing about abandoning the sea defences and nothing about the consequent vulnerability of the access road. In fact there is a very strong argument for saying that by not commenting DCC gave rise to a reasonable expectation that it would continue to maintain the road AND the rock armour that supported it.

But when asked why the Council said nothing what did Mr Tite Barnacle reply?  ‘At the time of the planning Application when DCC were consulted, there was no reason to suggest that the carriageway serving the properties was under threat’. Hats off to Mr Tite Barnacle! This one deserves to be written in poker-work and displayed in the Museum of World-class Circumlocutions. How can anyone argue with its drivelling inanity?

You really couldn’t make it up.

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