Sunday, 23 August 2009

Arbitrary and meaningless?

A comment on the OSM Talk-GB lists has got me thinking. It was part of discussion on creating local "chapters" to represent OSM. That's not a subject that particularly interests me, and the comment was a bit of a sideline to the main thread anyway. But I was struck by the thought that such chapters should be organised around "real" regions, not "arbitrary" and "meaningless" government boundaries.

The connection is that I've been closing some of the gaps in the local government boundaries to make my estimates of OSM coverage work. Chasing down the gaps showed just how many different paths the boundaries follow. Most often they track some feature in the landscape: usually a river or a stream. Many follow parts of the transport infrastructure, including a lot of roads and some railways (some follow the path of a railway that is no longer there). Near to where I was mapping yesterday part of the boundary for Bracknell Forest (council created 35 years ago) follows the path of a Roman Road (laid out 2,000 years ago). Some boundaries seem to have been adjusted to surround new housing developments, or follow more recent infrastructure such as a motorway. Others just snake across the countryside, following a route that has no apparent rationale at all.

It certainly ends up looking a bit mad. But of course it isn't really arbitrary or meaningless. It's the result of a whole series of decisions that date back at least to Saxon times (for shire counties), and medieval times (for towns). More recently there have been a couple of hundred years of trying to reform all this, and adapt to the effect of the industrial revolution and subsequent change. Right up to the creation of new unitaries earlier this year. At the time, each individual decision must have made some kind of sense, even if they now look arbitrary and meaningless to our eyes.

I am getting to the age when I ought to start grumbling about everything going to the dogs, but I don't have much sympathy with the view that local authorities have to be preserved as part of our national heritage. They are there to serve a practical purpose, not a ceremonial one. Like language they have to adapt to changing needs. And I doubt many of the existing boundaries have had any kind of democratic basis. Existing structures have pretty much been imposed on us: by power struggles between modern politicians, Victorian industrialists, Medieval bishops, Norman lords, Saxon Earls, and even Roman soldiers.

No doubt when the Martians invade they will impose new and more "rational" boundaries on us - just as the Normans did to the Saxons, and just as Napoleon did to much of Europe a couple of hundred years ago. Drawing up new boundaries is a neat way to break up an existing power base.

Certainly a few lines on the map are never going to reflect all the different "real" geographies out there, and "English administrative boundaries: the first 2,000 years" is unlikely to make the best-seller lists. But the boundaries we have today carry all the mess and inconsistency of their history. That's not a reason to preserve them, but until the Martians arrive, I reckon we ought to celebrate it.

1 comment:

David Earl said...

True, but problematic.

Politicians are very protective about their power base because exercising power is what politics is all about. This overrides the democratic process and the interests of local people.

Take my county of Cambridgeshire for example. There are no Conservative seats held in Cambridge City (nearly all LibDem) and most of the immediately surrounding divisions are also LibDem (there's are a couple of Tories in the ring of divisions around the city).

But very rural Cambridgeshire is massively Conservative dominated. As they are the transport authority, this means that exclusively rural and mainly distant Tory councillors make the key transport decisions for the only part of the County that has substantial traffic problems and attracts most of the transport funding and innovation, Cambridge city.

Furthermore, Cambridge city (district council LibDem controlled) has been growing, yet the growth is in South Cambridgeshire district (Tories) so we have inconsistent approaches. In any case large parts of South Cambridgeshire are now really part of the greater Cambridge conurbation in that they depend on the city of services and employment (though for the latter, it sometimes works the other way round too).

I think Cambridge and its environs would be better served by a single Greater Cambridge council (of whatever complexion, though chances are currently it would go to the LibDems, but this hasn't always been the case, even in recent times).

But the Conservatives would never be prepared to give up the power they anti-democratically yield over Cambridge. It would never happen.