Housing – part 18: A NEW Ministry of Works

A NEW Ministry of Works

The previous post argued for a new Ministry of Works to create new settlements that are cheap, green and friendly. The aim is to find ways of life that are pleasant and won’t screw the world up. For these settlements, my first suggestion is for estates of car-free, wooden prefabs with inbuilt market gardens, which also have more localised economies and are built around transport hubs. I arrived at this solution by a process of eliminating alternatives. There will be others.

The New Ministry of Works will take over many of the responsibilities of existing government departments. These departments form a complex system of regulation and control. Experience tells us that changing any complex system must be taken with care. Experience in the development of complex software systems can be used as an analogue.

Changing complex systems: An example.

When complex systems are changed this motto is usually a good rule to follow.
Large software systems can be complex beasts. I have decades of software developer experience and decades of reading blogs and the trade press. Experience tells me that an ‘evolutionary approach’ is best.

To use an ‘evolutionary approach’ start with a general idea for a software product in mind. Then build a small prototype. If it shows hopeful signs, improvements can be added to see if the product can do more. This process is repeated until the product is useful. Failures are discarded on the way. This process does not start with a detailed specification.

An alternative to an evolutionary approach is one that writes a specification (describing what is required) then, as a separate phase, the specification is implemented. For government software projects, particularly, this has been the practice: A government organisation writes a ‘full’ specification then, after a bidding process, an outside organisation is appointed to implement the specification. Then a contract is agreed, which embodies the specification. To a large extent this fixes the specification.

This separation of specification and implementation is called a ‘waterfall approach‘. Usually this is for a new system that is a replacement for an old system. The new system is meant to take over and the old system is discarded. This approach has produced very poor results but the UK government, at least, still persists in trying to make it work. One of the motivations for continuing this failed approach may be the desire to replace an old system with a shiny & new ‘re-engineered’ system – often changing everything in one go.

Joel Spolsky (with Jeff Atwood) founded the amazing Stack Overflow question and answer site. (It exceeded 10,000,000 questions in late August 2015 ). Here is Joel’s view of throwing out old systems from his blog Joel on Software:

The idea that new code is better than old is patently absurd. Old code has been used. It has been tested. Lots of bugs have been found, and they’ve been fixed.

Each of these bugs took weeks of real-world usage before they were found. The programmer might have spent a couple of days reproducing the bug in the lab and fixing it. If it’s like a lot of bugs, the fix might be one line of code, or it might even be a couple of characters, but a lot of work and time went into those two characters.

When you throw away code and start from scratch, you are throwing away all that knowledge. All those collected bug fixes. Years of programming work.
So don’t change it all at once and throw away ‘all that knowledge’.

Sometimes, as in evolutionary biology, a product will reach a point where all it’s ‘improvements’ reach failure. Like the dinosaurs, it becomes an evolutionary dead-end. However, the usual case is for the ‘dead-end’ product to be replaced by something that has already grown up via a process of evolution.

When the dinosaurs reached the end of their line (or were displaced to the trees to live as birds), they were not replaced by re-engineered dinosaurs they were replaced by mammals. The mammals had already been evolving for at least 100 million years.

Joel Spolsky gives examples of software products showing a similar story: e.g. Netscape had the leading internet browser in the 1990s. They chose to completely rewrite their Netscalpe 4.0 browser, got stuck and delivered Netscape 6.0 late (missing out a failed version 5.0). It was soon replaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. There are several other examples.

To repeat, the message for complex working systems is:

Why a New Ministry Ministry of Works?

If an evolutionary approach is preferable, why should the complex set of relations between government departments be disturbed by creating a New Ministry of Works: a ministry, which replaces many of the functions and responsibilities of the complex system of existing government departments?

I propose a New Ministry of Works that will have the power to override the rules and regulations of several government departments – but will not replace the existing system wholesale: I will be for the new settlements only. For these settlement to be successful, they need the intellectual space to think outside the box, without being over burdened by existing regulation.

The New Ministry will use an evolutionary approach to settlement design – including local economies – but this will not cause an instant reorganisation of other departments.

However, the New Ministry should be free to innovate in defined geographical areas, even if these innovations are contrary to the existing regulation and control of the other government departments. These geographical areas will initially be relatively small.

Here are some examples of the responsibilities the New Ministry could take on:

Department of Transport: Alternative personal transport

The standard car, used for personal transport, is heavy, nearly a tonne in weight, and has the power for high speeds. It is not suitable for mixing with pedestrian or cyclist traffic. However, some roads capable of carrying occasional heavy traffic or emergency vehicles may be necessary. If cars are banned should other personal transport be allowed on the roads?

The New Ministry should be able, at its discretion, to allow other forms of personal transport such as golf carts or Segways, currently disallowed. When the Ministry gets into its stride, it could even commission the design of new forms of personal transport for use in new settlements.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

DEFRA were stripped of their responsibility for climate change in 2008 but they still have responsibilities for several areas that the New Ministry should control in its new settlements such as:

Adaptation to global warming
Agriculture
Air quality
Biodiversity
Flooding
Food
Forestry
Noise
Rural development
Sustainable development
Waste management
Water management

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Among the functions to be taken over from the MHCLG are these

Building regulations
Community cohesion
Decentralisation
Fire services and community resilience
Housing
Planning
Race equality

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Perhaps it is bold to suggest that this powerful government department should give up any of its power, but the New Ministry should have power over these areas:

Business regulation and support
Climate change policy in the United Kingdom
Company law
Competition
Corporate governance
Energy
Employment relations
Innovation
Intellectual property
Regional and local economic development
Trade

Local authorities

The new New Ministry should also take powers similar to those of local authorities for their new settlements.

Transparency and publications

In trying to find ways to transform the way we live the New Ministry must be open and transparent and be able to publish its workings, free of government censorship. This may require a new relationship with th UK Government and Parliament.

Postscript: Export opportunities

The theme of these posts for a cheaper and greener way of living, which depends much less on trade with the outside world – even with other parts of the UK. Local consumption with local production will reduce dependence on international trade. Reducing international trade is a consequence not an aim of this policy. Indeed, for the world to survive climate disaster, these ideas – or something like them – must spread.

When the New Ministry of Works primes the market for cheap, green and friendly settlements, there will be British expertise that can be exported.

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