Friday 29 March 2013

Lamp-posts and the terrible costs of centralisation

During the hottest week of May (remember those?) a few years back the month, my mother-in-law arrived at the council-run college in Croydon where she taught part-time, to find that the central heating was on.

It was particularly sticky and sweltering. During every spare moment, she set about the long business of tracking down somebody who had sufficient authority to turn off the radiators. My mother-in-law is one of those people who can make things happen, very gently but determinedly, but – even for her – getting the radiators turned off in the sweltering heat was no easy project. 

The principal of the college wasn’t responsible. Nor were those responsible for the college at the local authority. Most of them not only had no power over their own heating; they also had no idea who had – a familiar experience in centralised public services.

Towards the end of the day, she discovered the right person. It was a man with a laptop, somewhere in the council building which also housed the education officers. He was persuaded to act, and – at the click of a mouse – the radiators went off.

In those heady first few years after the Berlin Wall came down, I used to write a regular newsletter on renewable energy, and often included anecdotes about the energy use in the great Soviet-style apartment buildings on the outskirts of Moscow or Budapest – pumping heat into the surrounding atmosphere whether it was hot or cold. 

We used to laugh at this, amazed that nobody could turn off their ancient totalitarian radiators. Yet we seem to be in a similar situation in the UK – my wife was teaching in a local school where the radiators were also blazing out during the hottest days, so I don’t believe this is actually very unusual. The reason is the same; the institutions are too big for the human dimension to work.

Centralisation is expensive because it provides for no initiative, no responsibility, no intelligent feedback.  Find out more in my book The Human Element.

Which brings me to the reason for the photo, which is of the street outside my house.  A few weeks ago I blogged about the bizarre picture of Croydon Council planting a whole series of new lamp-posts during a recession when they are busily closing libraries - and the new lamp-posts do not even generate their own solar energy, so they will have to be replaced pretty soon.

Now we have the new lamp-posts, under a massive contract with Skanska which also covers next-door Lewisham and lasts for five years.  But we also have the old ones.  The picture above is the only spot in our street where the two lamp-posts, old and new, are not blazing forth next to each other.  All the other new lamp-posts are blazing right next to the old ones, which are also blazing.

Does this kind of inefficiency matter?  The answer is, across two whole London boroughs, it does.  Because, as I may have mentioned before, small plus small plus small equals big.

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