Lemonade, wind-breaks and a Passion Play – the triumph of officiousness over common sense

Tired of Brexit, I come back to that staple subject, the dim and officious council employee and other “small-minded officials with powers disproportionate to their intelligence” as I put it in an article of 2010. The lemonade girl of Tower Hamlets calls to mind the stories of the Bristol wind-break and the Oxford Passion Play.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post which was almost entirely about Brexit. It was called Malice, stupidity or something else? What is behind political posturing? Hundreds of people read it and the reactions were kind. A few days later I wrote another one called David Davis and the suicidal robot – a Brexit parable. I rather enjoyed writing it, but almost no one read it. Either nobody really liked the first one or they thought they’d seen it already; perhaps they were just bored with Brexit.

The problem with these compendium articles is that they take a long time to write, especially when that is fitted around working. The first parts are out of date before the last paragraph is written and other things get missed. Where do you stop – rolling subjects like Brexit offer us something new to wonder at every day and, frankly, there is more to life than Brexit (I wonder if that is true: Captain Scott would not say “There is more to life than flogging through the snow” as if he had any option by that stage; ever-increasing desperation and the growing certainty that he was done for probably felt a bit like Brexit).

Anyway, I am going back to writing shorter articles about bite-sized topics – whatever catches my eye as the days pass.

A recurring theme in this blog has been the follies of those responsible for local government. The most recent story is about the lemonade seller of Tower Hamlets. I will come back to that, but it reminded me of other things I wrote about years ago – plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose as they say across the Channel (which reminds me – I want to write about “Dunkirk” as well).

In 2010, for example, I wrote about the Bristol officials who made a family take down the wind-break which they had erected on Clifton Downs. Putting petty officials back in their box was a sustained rant which brought in New Labour, the French Revolution, Hodges from Dad’s Army, and the Ayr policeman who earned the title “Shiny Buttons” for his devotion to petty regulation.

A second article about the Bristol wind-break, Discipline for Bristols Jobsworths – not likely talked of Bristol’s apology, which was much like the one from Tower Hamlets:

I suspect that Bristol’s apology was inspired by a quick-witted PR person. Bristol did not apologise because anyone thought that the officers’ heavy-handed conduct was wrong, but because someone rather brighter than the general run of council officers spotted a PR disaster looming….; it does not matter what inspired Bristol’s apology, they did at least make one.

There was a similar story in Oxford which I wrote about with the title Oxford City Council gets into a Passion:

a group had sought permission to perform a Passion Play in the Cowley Road; a dim little chap at Oxford City Council saw the word “Passion” and, knowing nothing of Easter or anything else, withheld permission on the assumption that some al fresco sex performance was proposed.

And so to the recent lemonade story. There was much outrage when officers from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets pounced on a five-year-old girl selling lemonade from a table in the street and fined her £150. Someone more senior at Tower Hamlets grovelled profusely, threw the officers under a bus, and refunded the £150:

The problem with hiring stupid people is that you cannot give them discretion, and no doubt the council enforcers were strictly following some by-law whose wording they traced laboriously with their fingers as they struggle to read it.

Not all the outrage was wholly justified, however – it was the father, not the daughter who was fined, and there are various reasons why, in principle at least, this falls within the purview of a local authority. What if everybody set up tables on the pavement? Sneer if you like at health and safety regulations, but I quite like the idea that someone is supervising the content of publicly-sold comestibles. What about commercial sellers of lemonade who pay rent and rates and are subject to all kinds of bureaucratic interference?

This is not to justify the heavy-footed actions of the enforcers, but it shows that there are other factors to consider before leaping to outrage. Supermarket giant Morrisons was among those who leapt to offer support:

I think there is a difference between the Tower Hamlets story and the other ones mentioned here – not much of a difference, but a bats-squeak of justification in the principle behind the enforcers’ actions. They need training in presentation, in explaining what they are doing and why. But then Downing Street does not set much of an example in that.

One twist is missing. What if the father had turned on his own camera – most of us are carrying one in our phones but we forget when it matters. I bet the officers, their own cameras whirring, would have whined about “dita protexshun” and tried to make him turn it off.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Bureaucrats, Local Government. Bookmark the permalink.

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