The Landscape Guide

17.10a The administration of London Blueways

Contents list

London has large a large area of waterspace, all of it now administered by obsolete institutions, notably:

  • Port of London Authority ('established in 1908 to administer, preserve and improve the Port of London’)
  • British Waterways Board ('responsible for maintaining 2,000 miles (3,220km) of this inland waterway network today so that people can use it for a wide range of leisure activities')
  • Thames Water ('provides sewage services to 13 million people and drinking water to eight million people')
  • Environment Agency ('concerned mainly with rivers, flooding, and pollution')
  • Municipal parks departments (concerned with a century-old conception of parks)

In theory they are multi-purpose agencies dedicated to the public good. In practice, each is dedicated to the single purpose for which it was created (in brakets above, quoted from their websites). Talk about other objectives is 95% window dressing. Largely free of democratic control, they are self-perpetuating bodies dominated by professional elites with narrow objectives.

The proper treatment of such organisations is explained by the Shakespeare and the Darwin of bureaucracy: Cyril Northcote Parkinson. He wrote (Parkinson's Law, 1959 edn p 95): 'We find everywhere a type of organization (administrative, commerical, or academic) in which the higher officials are plodding and dull, those less senior are active only in intrique against each other, and the junior men are frustrated and frivolous'. Parkinson's solution is set forth on page 108: ' The institution is for all practical purposes dead. It can be founded afresh but only with a change of name, a change of site, and an entirely different staff. The temptation, for the economically minded, is to transfer some portion of the original staff to the new institution - in the name, for example, of continuity. Such a transfusion would certainly be fatal, and continuity is the very thing to avoid. No portion of the old and diseased foundation can be regarded as free from infection. No staff, no equipment, no tradition must be removed from the original site. Strict quarantine should be followed by complete disinfection. Infected personnel should be dispatched with a warm testimonial to such rival institutions as are regarded with particular hostility. All equipment and files should be destroyed without hesitation. As for the buildings, the best plan is to insure them heavily and then set them alight. Only when the site is a blackened ruin can we feel certain that the germs of the disease are dead.'

Margaret Thatcher's government demonstrated the effectiveness of such a policy in its treatment of the Isle of Dogs after 1981. The Port of London Authority, which held the land, kept dreaming that London might one day recover its place as the world's premier port. The government simply took away its London Dockland estate and vested the land in the London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC). The land was developed rapidly and the LDDC then disbanded. Unfortunately, the waterspace was then given to the Britiish Waterways Board (BWB). Although the BWB realised some 30 years ago (and 60 years after the event) that its future lay with leisure, it has not become a full multi-purpose institution under democratic control.

See waterside design commentary