Commenting on a huge development plan which will further erode the very things that make people want to live and work in Oxford – Oxford is white-hot economically and as a result, feels like a city under siege by Big Money (1) - I have had to wade through a number of lengthy planning documents.
What strikes me is the peculiar language and style of these documents (same of course can be said of official documents which I used to write myself). Orwell taught us that language IS thought, and that deliberate distortions in language are deliberate efforts to distort, or limit, thinking.
Planners delight in using words and phrases that no ordinary person ever does, and which in fact often signal the exact reverse of what the authors hope they will convey.
'vibrant' = 'overcrowded, noisy; possibly smelly, too'
'high class' = ' as cheap as we think we can get away with'
'world class' = 'OK, we'll slap a fancy facade on it'
'iconic' = 'looks like Croydon'
'heritage' = 'infuriating, but we aren't allowed to demolish this'
'exciting' = 'lots of money to be made'
'visionary' = 'lots and lots and LOTS of money to be made'
'amenity' = 'little trees and benches to placate locals
'sustainability' = 'put usual 'green' stuff in here'
and of course
'consultation' = 'ask what they want, then do what we want'
Some of the language is just pseudo-technical and grandiose:
'gateway' = main road
'hub' = junction or interchange
'multi-model interchange opportunity' = 'bus and rail station'
'public realm' = 'public spaces'
'signage' = 'signs'
Some still await translation:
Here's my own offering: 'town planner': 'someone who knows everything about a city - except the people who live in it'.
Equally in Plan Speak, you cannot talk about the things that actually matter to people - the intangible atmosphere or feeling or look of a place. There is no language for it. I've seen so many instances (Oxford being much developed, but peopled by articulate residents) where communities are told that such things are simply not debatable, because they don't fit any category of officially recognised planning talk. Only footfall, through-flows, optimising value, and all the other crap that clog up the minds (and hearts) of planning committees everywhere.
Thus, when the Council official we went to see set all that aside, and simply asked us what we valued about our neighbourhood (all credit to her!), all sorts of things came out which, on one view, are trivia, on another, are the stuff of peoples' lives: there are lots of different birds in our gardens, because next to the countryside and river; you can let your children play in the street (it's a cul de sac) and as result, they get to know each other and as a result, their parents get to know each other; because people are often in the street, they talk to each other; old people feel safe; lonely and vulnerable people are hailed and talked to; a stranger who is behaving oddly is easily challenged, or helped; looking outside to the west, the countryside is completely dark at night; its so quiet at night, you can hear the cows lowing.
The effect of these comments was like a shaft of sunlight breaking into a room long shuttered.
To challenge power is to challenge the language of power.
(1) Brexit may be solving this problem as EU funding for research is cut and – a number of foreigners have said this to me – they no longer feel welcome here. I feel so ashamed, and angry to hear that.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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