Thursday, July 15, 2010

Principles or Rules

If you visit Ashbury Close in Coleridge, as I did last week, you are met with a pretty unwelcoming sight:

It is an example of a rules based approach to regulation - trying to set out in detail what is and isn't allowed.

There are many flaws in this approach.

It can lead to people putting in place restrictions that are unnecessarily restrictive. For example, the only principle I can think of behind 'no cycling' on Ashbury Close is that there might be conflict between cyclists and pedestrians causing alarm/distress or injury to one or other party that should be avoided. But the near complete lack of compliance with this rule, coupled with the lack of any record of problems is a key reason why I am supporting a proper cycle route being established here, and the removal of the no cycling sign - I think the principle that as long as it doesn't cause problems to others, we should be encouraging more environmentally friendly forms of transport, particularly on routes to schools, is more important - and almost all cyclists living in or using the close seem to agree.

With a rule based approach, it can be confusing to those enforcing the rules what is and isn't allowed, reducing the credibility of the system - I am struggling to see what law or regulation would actually be broken for at least two of the signs above if they were just ignored - its not as if Ashbury Close actually has any formal parking restrictions. As a Councillor, it can then lead to residents feeling let down when authorities are powerless to act, even if an apparent rule has been advertised.

But the big problem with a rules based approach is that we live in a complex world, and it is difficult to anticipate in advance every possible scenario, so rules quickly grow and become unwieldy to use as every new situation introduces a new rule, and even then there will be new situations not covered by the new rules.

The USA culturally has preferred a rules based approach in many situations - for example their accounting standards contain many specific rules, in contrast to the UK, which has an approach based more on principles and examples than rules. I wonder if this explains why expensive legal action seems so popular in the US?

The previous Labour government preferred a rules based approach to government - just consider how our tax system grew under the last government, or the number of criminal offences rocketed. The discretion of local authorities and other local bodies was reduced by central targets. Few people will agree that the sum effect of all these new rules was beneficial to the country as a whole.

Whilst rules sometimes have their place, in most cases I much prefer the alternative approach - principle based - where regulation sets out in broad outline what the regulation intends to achieve, and any constraints. And the key principles to me are responsibility, for yourself and those around you, and freedom in its broadest sense for those that are responsible.

If government of whatever form (or any other organisation for that matter) feels the need to set out in great detail what is and isn't allowed through a great set of rules, maintaining the principles of responsibility and freedom is all but impossible.


Ed. said...

How refreshing to read some common sense on the subject! New Labour brought so many rules in, I'm not aware of any lawyer or police officer who knows what all of them are!

Equinox said...

Many rules were in place long before Labour - the problem lies with the make up of the "political class" in general - many of whom have a legal background.

One of the things I've found working in the Whitehall furnace is that many of the solutions in recent decades have been rules based - because that's what governments and parliaments create - laws.

When bad stuff happens and there's a tabloid newspaper headline screaming "Asylum-seeking terrorists living in five-star hotels that you're paying for!!!" the first reaction of a politician is to be seen to be doing something. The two levers politicians have (in Whitehall anyway) are money and rules (whether laws, regulations or "guidance").

Inevitably you end up with a problem-solving culture based around money and rules - even though the best solution to the problem (if it exists in the first place) may not need money or rules at all.

During my gap year just over a decade ago, I used to go rollerblading after work during the summer at Morley - my old primary school. I can't do that now. Someone has put big metal gates up. As a child and teenager we'd regularly play football after school till it got dark in the summer. Kids can't do that now - someone put gates up and a big legal notice saying that the playing of unauthorised ball games was prohibited under the 1996 Education Act. (You can't blame Labour for that one). Everyone then screams blue murder about childhood obesity.

Homerton College grounds - we used to go apple-picking as children. Luard Road/Sedley Taylor Road sports fields - all now fenced off and locked up with signs saying "keep out."

Can we have our open spaces and amenities back please?