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Using humour to stop the likes of Mansell Homes fouling villages

Gordon Young, editor of The Drum and founder of the Carbuncles on the value of humour when it comes to community protest campaigns.

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I was pleased to see the Carbuncle Awards, the scheme that identifies the most dismal place in Scotland, getting so much profile this week – when Linwood was awarded the infamous Plook on a Plinth Award.This is an award scheme which I set up in the 90s, and ran until last year, when I passed the mantle on to John Glenday, the editor of architecture magazine Urban RealmThere is no doubt the Carbuncle Awards has caught the public’s imagination. Every year it generates 1,000s of column inches as journalists and communities debate the merits or otherwise of bestowing the award on a particular place.Its success is to get even the tabloid press, including The Sun, talking about town planning; an issue normally confined to worthy specialist journals. And of course it has also been a great way of prompting councils to get their acts together and sort out their town centres. It’s remarkable how motivating the glare of publicity can be.But the real lesson of the Carbuncles for me is the value of having a sense of humour. The scheme may have had a serious agenda, but it never took itself too seriously. The very fact we handed out a Plook on a Plinth has done much to ensure the project has become a regular feature on news agendas, and has made it easier for local communities to use it as a battering ram to get the attention of those responsible for their towns.I have applied the same principle to two other campaigns I have been involved with. Several years ago I helped an attempt to save a local nursery school from closure.Its staff were getting very militant and had proposed a strike. My view was this might alienate a lot of their natural supporters, like the parents, and wouldn’t be a great way of getting press sympathy.My suggestion was rather than the staff going on strike, what about the kids? The ‘Every baby Out’ campaign was born. Okay, we didn’t save the nursery but we generated a ton of publicity which included press and national TV. And the picket line – manned by toddlers – was great fun.I am currently involved in another campaign, which is closer to the Carbuncles brief. Mansell Homes have managed to get planning permission for a high density housing scheme in my rural village of Fenwick in East Ayrshire.The community are up in arms. And to be clear, this is not the usual NIMBY no to all development sort of row. Most people would accept new housing in the village.But it is the scale of this development and an irregular planning process that has caused concern; even the council’s Provost has suggested it might be in breach of planning law.However, the most damning fact is the fact that the development is planned on council land. As a result they will be the primary beneficiaries of the transaction – and of course its value will be affected by how many homes planning permission is given for.That’s the bones of the story and I suspect all those who do not live in the conservation village – which is home of the Covenanters and the co-operative movement no less – will already be losing interest in the detail.So again in my view humour was a key element in getting outside interest. So we created the ‘Don’t Foul Fenwick’ campaign. It has the added benefit of a two-in-one message, meaning few would object to seeing it on lampposts around the village; no to irresponsible dog owners, no to irresponsible developers.This sort of campaign gives communities a focus of their activities and journalists a hook for their coverage. And of course humour is also a difficult thing for authorities to tackle. Their responses can show them as the soulless, humourless, joyless bureaucracies which they normally are.That was why I was pleased to see that the issue also caught the attention of my old friends at The Carbuncles. They gave the Mansell Homes development a Whitehead Award this year in recognition of a scheme, which although not overly unsightly now, might rapidly grow into something far uglier.The council’s response to the Whitehead Award? Rather than put the squeeze on Mansell, they put the squeeze on me – suggesting to the press I had unduly influenced Urban Realm. See what I mean? No sense of humour.

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