Are politics good for people?

It was almost exactly one hundred years ago when, one pleasantly warm and sunny day, a Government Inspector arrived in Dartmouth on the south coast of Devon. His mission was to find out how well the town was complying with the requirements of the Public Health Act of 1875. His findings, although couched in rather more words than this, could be summed up in just two: failing totally.

The story started long before then when a doctor discovered that the cause of cholera was a bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, carried in the water supply when sewage was allowed to contaminate it. It was only when Dr John Snow put the pump lifting water from one of the contaminated wells out of action (illegally) that the authorities began to listen to him. The result was an ineffectual act passed in 1848 which gave powers to local authorities to act in such matters but did not insist that they used the powers. Ten years later another act was passed which slightly improved matters but it was not until 1875 that an act was passed that made it mandatory for local authorities to do something about the problems caused by bad housing, poor sewage disposal, the lack of potable water and so on. This Act included the need for each local authority to appoint a Sanitary Inspector – a qualified Civil Engineer who had no link with any businesses in the authority’s district and who was not a councillor.

What Dr Mivart found when he arrived in 1914 was that the authority had, indeed, appointed a Sanitary Inspector – one Fred J Veasey, local businessman and councillor who had no qualifications and who was carrying out no action as laid down by the Act. So it was that nearly forty years after the act was passed, a report calling for immediate and drastic action was lodged. However, before anything could happen the First World War had broken out and nothing happened for a few more years.

However, in 1920 a fully qualified civil and municipal engineer who had been acting as an Assistant Engineer in a borough in Kent arrived to become Dartmouth’s first proper Borough Engineer and Sanitary Inspector. His name was Alfred James Willett and he was my grandfather. It is a matter of record that he and Fred Voysey became very good friends and, indeed, mt grandfather lodged with the Voysey’s until he found a house to buy and he moved his wife and five children down to join him.

He made a huge difference to the town (and, according to family traditions, often having to fight the politicians in the town who were far from happy with what he was doing). Essentially the three most important things were that he created an efficient sewage system (albeit one that discharged untreated sewage into the River Dart), built a water works in an adjoining valley from where the treated water was pumped to feed the towns new water mains and he built what was arguably the country’s first “new town” on the basis that it was easier to move people into new, modern houses with proper modern (for then) facilities than to try to do anything with the slums in the confined and hilly town.

This, of course, did little to please those who owned those slums and from which they had derived an income but that is another story.

The point I want to make is that my grandfather was no politician. Mt father, who followed in his footsteps to become a civil engineer at first serving in the Royal Engineers and then, after leaving the army, as an Urban District Surveyor. He, too, was not a politician. Indeed, at no time did I hear him express any opinion about any political party or about any decision taken by the councillors he served. Following the implementation of the Maude report in 1974, he took early retirement rather than accepting the offer of becoming the Chief Engineer of the new, and far larger, authority (and therefore a far better paid post). This was the only time I remember when he criticised politicians: he was convinced that the amalgamation of urban and rural authorities was a serious mistake. I think he was right (as those of you who have read my posts over the year will know).

No, grandfather was not a politician but he changed the face of Dartmouth.

Doctor Snow was not a politician but, by discovering the way cholera was transmitted, he changed the face of Britain.

Yes, politicians then had to pass acts that “enabled” society to use the discoveries made by these non-politicians but, when you think about it, politicians have always been followers and rarely (if ever) innovators.

Perhaps those of us who want to make a difference to society have been barking up the wrong tree by thinking that the right way is to do so within the political arena. Perhaps we should accept (as my wife tells me) that politics don’t work and if you want to change society there are better ways to do it. Perhaps we need to discover something (such as electricity) or invent something (such as the steam engine) or simply do something (such as arrange for a few unemployed people to help the elderly and infirm keep their gardens under control). Actually, come to think of it, that is almost exactly what is happening in some places where voluntary care groups are doing sterling work – generally unnoticed and certainly without much thanks apart from those for whom they care.

So, what of democracy? No doubt I shall come back to that soon (I especially want to explore the implications that arise from Ronald Langereis’s comment on my last blog although, come to think of it, the Holland in which he lives probably owes more to the engineers that created their land than to their politicians).

2 responses to “Are politics good for people?

  1. Democracy, politics, they seem to work fine, at least for the politicians.
    With regard to your remark (between brackets) – do you know, in Holland, we have had water-management boards since the late 17th century with their own regional jurisdictions, independent from politics. It’s their responsibility to keep our feet dry and, since the start of this century, to provide our potable water, as well, this having been a communal or provincial responsibility up till then.
    These boards are almost completely run by civil engineers and of course, politicians couldn’t wait to bring this bunch of stubborn professionals under their rule. So, in the 90s, they tried to ‘democratise’ these boards, holding separate elections for councils of lay people to ‘advise’ the boards. After two elections, this proved a total failure as nobody showed up at the ballot and the new structure was abandoned.
    But now, being in the grip of austerity, this lends a great opportunity to ‘rationalise’ the power structure. Why have two different authorities, one political and the other professional? Merging them into one would be so much cheaper and more efficient, won’t it? The people at large is anything but interested in the technicalities and so, the political mill is turning and will not stop till everything will be as it should be according to TPTB.
    Après nous le déluge.

  2. Thank you for that one – and yes, it is an exact example of how we need to shape society. Let them that can DO and, while we are about it, if it ain’t broke please stop politicians trying to mend it.

    Soon, probably, I shall return to the question of hoe we can have the best of both worlds: a democracy that allows technical people to run it.

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