We live in a jungle of acronyms. Once, like real trees in the real Matto Grosso, they sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere and did the planet no end of good. Lately, a new acronym has taken root in the thin soil of UK politics and threatens dire consequences. Welcome to the world of FAF.
Here in sunny Exmouth we have our share of problems. Those officially charged with mitigating their worst effects rename them challenges, but semantic slights-of-hand solve nothing. The current problems, exacerbated this summer by a tsunami of staycationers, include an ever-bigger breed of camper vans,, and a locally-grown crop of eager boy racers.
A good friend of ours, a gifted entrepreneur unafraid of management structures large or small, has declared a war of his own on these cowboys, and devoted time he can scarcely afford to try and run them out of town. I suspect he dallied with the full vigilante, including punishment beatings and those stinger things the cops drape across roads to shred the tyres of the ungodly, but as a super-concerned warrior citizen he decided to play within the rules.
As anyone who’s ever tried to thread the needle of local government will attest, this isn’t easy. Key fault lines between organisations that should be talking to each other are everywhere. West of the Lifeboat station on Exmouth’s seafront, for instance, the seaward side of the road belongs to Devon County Council, while the rest takes its orders from East Devon District Council. This may sound wildly theological but if you’re trying to stop parked monster camper vans overhanging both the promenade and the road itself, it helps to know which doors to bang on. In other words, it takes an act of the wildest optimism to assume that one arm of local government belongs to the same body as the other.
Undaunted, our friend figured out a strategy, wrote himself a carefully-sequenced action plan, spent weeks collecting visual evidence, recruited support from the like-minded, and then used Zoom and his remaining stock of patience to set up virtual debates between all the interested parties. Given the targets on which he was drawing a bead, these sessions had to include officers and councillors from Exmouth Town Council, East Devon District Council, a uniformed inspector from Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, plus sundry other interested parties.
The problems were defined, aired, and debated. Minutes were kept, rival positions explained, the civic meadow thoroughly ploughed. At the end of this consultative phase, each interest group retired to review exactly what might have changed. The weather, meanwhile, took a sudden turn for the worse and a series of grey days have made life slightly tougher for both the campervans and the boy racers.
Undeterred, our friend has commendably made it his business to keep everyone in this rapidly-expanding citizen loop fully up to speed with his latest thinking. Long memos seek to penetrate local government defences and make a forced landing on their turf. He – and we – want some semblance of order imposed on both the rogue campers and the cowboy racers. In the interests of peace and quiet, might there not be a call for properly policed parking sites with a range of facilities? For a lower speed limit? And for effective law enforcement to put the boy racers back in their cage?
To their great credit, the police have a scheme to enrol locals in this latter battle, and there are signs that this will happen. Councillors are likewise eager for action, as – privately – are certain local government officers. But the timescales involved are geological – aeons of meetings, e-mails, local consultations, letters to the Exmouth Journal, and sundry other eruptions of local rage. Nonetheless, our friend has called on years of experience in the private sector and come up with a cunning plan in order to maintain the momentum.
This, I need hardly tell you, has now been released into the wild as an acronym. TAFF means a Task and Finish Forum. Ironically, this management tool appears to have come from local government in the first place. Each next step in our collective journey towards a better seaside life, insists our friend, is to be carefully described, and ticked when agreed and certified. This, of course, is marking local government’s own homework, and has raised a thin smile amongst officers in Honiton and Exeter.
One of them happens to be a friend, and we had a drink a while back. In his heart, and I believe him, he’s totally with us. He lives in Exmouth. He loves the place. He has kids. And he likes to sleep at night, undisturbed by pimped exhausts and burning rubber. But the real problem, he says, is resource. Central government have kept local councils on starvation rations for most of the decade and now there’s no fat left. Whatever you do, wherever you turn, costs money. And there isn’t any.
When I asked him whether this might be deliberate, an equally cunning plan to make local councils the sitting ducks for public protest, he simply nodded.
‘We’re knocking on Whitehall doors every working week,’ he said. ‘And we get precisely nowhere.’
‘They’ve come up with an acronym. It’s beyond cynical but it’s bloody clever. Eff A Eff. Faff And Forget.’
Were it not for the triple whammy of Brexit, Covid, and now Kabul, FAF would be mildly funny, but apply the Whitehall acronym to the whole range of governmental responsibilities and maybe we find the explanation for where we currently find ourselves, as both a seaside town beset by yobbery, and as a nation hopelessly adrift.
FNBIONYGN For nothing, believe it or not, you get nothing.