Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Hollway Road shops – the Adam Smith factor

The Planning Committee's decision to approve construction of four detached houses in the yard behind Hollway Road shops was tricky. Two members wanted to wait till there was more information available. When their bid failed, it left the six members evenly divided.

We heard impassioned pleas from Tory ward councillors and traders, plus a battery of formal written objections and a petition of 1701 names, all opposed the housebuilding. It would, they said, drive more school run mums to park in front of local homes, shop deliveries would get difficult, customers would desert the precinct if they had to park somewhere else, and the whole place will be boarded up before Mr Pickles can roll in to the rescue. Every dark scenario was based on the continuing and growing reliance on the private car. And all of them were set against one solitary comment in support. You can guess where that came from.

[Even so, there should have been one good outcome. One shopkeeper had graphically described to the Planning Committee how the lifeblood of his furniture and flowers business depends on his customers being able to load their cars 'out the back' with such purchases as compost. That interested me – right now, I'd love a local source of good seed compost. So I went to his shop next morning to get some – only to be told they don't sell it!  A bit naughty, that.   Doesn't say much for witness credibility.]

Anyway, it went through on the casting vote of the Chair. No-one seemed entirely happy with it, but their hands are largely tied. It had to be allowed; there were no robust grounds for refusal.

 I wonder if our Tory councillors thought to apply their Adam Smith credo to all this? Here was a model test of Smith's 'hidden hand' that should somehow bring a public good from all the self-interested actions of the players in this little local market.
We're talking about a privately owned parade of shops that was, from the start, the property of absentee landlords making a development investment. Over the years, bits of freehold and leasehold have been sold off piecemeal, so now its a dog's breakfast of different owners and occupiers and interests, with a web of legal agreements that should protect against anyone abusing their position.

Crucially, the 'back yard' delivery area, left neglected for many years while providing 'windfall' free parking and opportunities for vandalism, fell into the hands of yet another absentee owner who perceived a development opportunity for the financially unproductive eyesore he'd acquired. And that led – after long negotiations with the planners – to this building application.

It provides four detached homes, it ticks the planning boxes, and it appears to allow for continued access for shop deliveries. But the consensus (if the councillors and traders are to be believed) is that it's a Bad Thing.

Isn't that exactly how the system is supposed to work? Lots of enterprising players acting in their own interests, free of the red tape that might risk stifling innovation? Exactly what we had here. A public good, produced by the 'hidden hand' of ambition and competition. Except that, according to the councillors, it will lead to the loss of Stockwood's shopping centre.

In public, the Tories are quick enough to capitalise on any local dissent and make their voices heard. But back in the Council House as in Parliament, they vote routinely for policies and dogma that have everything to do with swelling private profit and inequality at the expense of the public good.

And of course, they won't learn from the lesson of Hollway Road shops.

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