Real life Laputa

I was watching an episode of Grand Designs last night and I don’t know, maybe it’s been a long week, maybe I’m fed up with the weather or maybe I’m just sleep deprived but the bureaucracy of this country of ours made me want to throw something at the telly!

I’ve always hated the degree of control our governing bodies have over us and more to the point, how they use that power.  We live in a nation where from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed you are required to comply with thousands of often petty rules.  I’m not talking about thou shall not kill as that kind of thing remains a pretty solid thing we can all get behind.

No, it’s things like ‘you can’t park here’.  ‘You can park here but only for an hour and only if after that hour you don’t return for at least two hours’.  ‘You can park here but only if you aren’t driving a vehicle that by its design, is intended for commercial use, regardless of its actual use’ (trust me, this level of demarcation exists under Dorset CC’s Laputa like control of parking in Swanage).  Another good one of course is; ‘Even though this is your house and not open to the public, you aren’t allowed to use that kind of thingy, you have to use this kind of thingy’. And so on and so forth into dumbed down infinity.

One of the problems is that along with our natural apathy and general acceptance of being told what to do, often by idiots, we are so conditioned by our endless rules that it’s not until we take a break from rip off, grey UK to go somewhere warm, sunny and laid back that we start to realise how pathetically uptight our little laughing stock of a country is.

We all come home from our holidays commenting on how ‘laid back’ life is in X and how ‘chilled out’ everyone is in Y.  Of course it is and of course they are; they’re allowed to do such outlandish and crazy things as look out for themselves and be trusted to look out for others whilst they are at it.  Ok, I’m painting a very one sided and biased picture here, but only to make the point.

So, back to Grand Designs; there’s this bloke and this bloke is an engineer and runs a successful engineering company.  He’s forgotten more about engineering and construction than most Planning Officers will ever learn but that’s no escape from their infuriating and frequently illogical, not to mention counter productive hoops.  Oh no, he still has to jump through them.  ‘What’s that?’ they ask ‘You want to use what type of handrail on your own stair case in your own home paid for out of your own money? I think not; it doesn’t comply with my childish list of tick boxes I work from!’

Whilst I’m banging on about how much needless handholding now goes on and how all members of the public are treated as morons until proven otherwise let’s look at some more TV that mirrors this and provides a great example of the all but unnoticed slide into lumping great swathes of society into the – thick as mince – category.  Master Chef.  To be fair, it could be any one of literally hundreds of programs but I’ve decided to pick on Master Chef.

Master Chef is the episodal, cheap TV equivalent of Mission Impossible 2.  If that film was produced and edited at ‘normal’ speed from start to finish it’d be shorter than most Ad breaks.  And so it is with Master Chef.  I don’t mean that they go in for lots of self indulgent slo-mo shots (though thinking about it that could actually improve the thing) but that if you remove the jaw slackening over use of epically long pregnant pauses and the voiceover re-caps that are useful for those with advanced dementia but patronisingly over frequent for anyone older than two and half, each episode would be done and dusted before the kettle had boiled.

These televisual reminders of how we aren’t to be trusted with tying our own shoes and how much we love, or at least all but blindly accept our rules in this country [and how potentially these same rules have unintended and potentially disastrous consequences,] inevitably put me in mind of the parallels with our own beloved Financial Services Industry.

It’s more than fair to say that at times, the financial services industry has been a hotbed of unethical behaviour.  It’s equally true that certain big names have done shameful and damaging things just to feather their own nests and those of their shareholders.  Furthermore, with an embarrassing list of high profile, industry wide cock ups reaching from before Mr Maxwell, through (insert name of product type) miss-selling scandal to the astonishingly appalling behaviour of the banks in recent years, it’s no wonder the media got all frothed up and contributed to the regulation we all now live with.  Some would say we’ve only ourselves to blame.

Shame though isn’t it because not only are the vast majority of Advisers very good, very hard working and trustworthy, but also most product providers are too.  As with everything, it’s the few who spoil things for the many.

So here we are, in a right old pickle.  On the one hand, we have a Regulator, quite rightly put in place and tasked with looking out for the consumer.  On the other, we have a clumsy institution (think drunk horse using a hair brush to spread jam on its toast) trying to govern things that I’m sorry, it just doesn’t adequately understand.

The trouble here is that rather than do what it takes to gain sufficient understanding of the tricky areas concerned (adviser charging /commission, implications of RDR, Unregulated Collectives, Alternative Investments etc) and, God forbid; think ahead, any regulator of the day just changes definitions to suit its agenda and introduces blanket rules in a poorly conceived bid to ‘protect the consumer’.

Without fail this approach leads to a rippling out of unforeseen (but foreseeable) negative knock on effects, one of them being a patronising outcome whereby those that don’t require or need that protection are denied access to something they do understand, they do want and often, need.

Back to our horse struggling with its breakfast, the task given to the FCA is a thankless one and probably nigh on impossible to get right.  That however is no excuse for failing to exercise a bit of humility and engage meaningfully and collaboratively with Industry representatives to ensure that policies and legislation that affect all industry professionals from small independents to large firms or networks, are properly thought out and not unduly influenced by anyone with an agenda.


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