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Is Safety Really THE Priority?

Some background: before moving to Norfolk in 1987 I grew up in North London on a staple diet of Star Wars and old World War 2 films. ‘Show me your papers’ was a common request in the war films and led to me realising how thankful I was to live in a free society like the UK.

I knew how lucky I was to have two loving parents. They never argued (which I thought was normal) and I had about 250 foster brothers and sisters over the years before I left for University at 17. I had two younger sisters, both black, and two older brothers who were both white. Colour of skin was never an issue. I thought all that was normal.

Life seemed simple, uncomplicated, and wonderfully happy. As a boy there were dens and fires to make, trees to climb and exciting things to explore. I did those things because I was naturally drawn to them – my parents were too busy looking after children to consider things like ‘gender stereotypes’.  I was acutely aware of how free it was back then. Nobody was patrolling the streets asking for my papers or if I had a permit to climb a tree.

My son, 23 as I write this, lives in Barcelona and has a wonderful life. I love him to bits. He does have this wisdom that is well beyond his years. When I asked him how this was, he smiled and said “Dad, I’ve learnt from your mistakes.” There was a slight pause, and he smiled again and added “and there’s been plenty of those.”. It is heart warming to consider that despite all the mistakes I’ve made, he’s better off learning not to repeat them.

So What?

I am a failed atheist with an appetite for science, history and philosophy. I have developed a hunger to know what is true and an appetite for reading between the lines. As you peel back the layers to try to better understand something, in inevitably reveals the worldview behind it. The easiest way to describe a worldview is the lens through which you see the world.

I learned that to understand another perspective it is important to peel back the layers and see a person’s worldview.  One of the easiest ways to detect a person’s worldview is benig aware of a statement that defines some sort of ‘most important thing’. Everything then flows from that statement.

Example: “Safety Is Our Priority”

This statement comes up time and time again in many organisations, particularly in the public sector. Behaviours, strategies, rules and attitudes logically flow from ‘safety is our priority’. Safety is a good idea, right? I would agree. However, when safety is the basis for a worldview in an organisation it can have very damaging, dehumanising impact on society too. It can lead to people being incapable of dealing with risk because they are never exposed to it. People are no longer free to make their own (and admittedly, sometimes stupid) decisions. It can lead to councils spending hundreds of millions of pounds on schemes that are totally compliant but completely ineffective. It can lead to cityscapes becoming more like zoos with metal railings everywhere to keep people safe from choosing to cross a road other than in designated ‘safe’ areas.

So a governing authority led by the ‘safety is our priority’ mantra will only consider itself successful by ensuring its citizens are kept safe. The only logical way to do this is to prevent citizens from having the choice to do something stupid.  It is a logical deduction. However, people are free spirits and authorities only achieve the safety they seek by stripping away freedoms to choose.

Unfortunately, this can only be achieved if people comply with the rules laid down (for their safety remember?). Authorities have to use increasingly coercive methods to get people to comply. These include cameras to monitor, warning posters, automated systems of delivering threats, fines and punishments. All of which are rather dehumanising. My hat goes off to Norwich City Council: this is one area they excel in.

A Letter from the Broads Authority

What’s this got to do with a letter from the Broads Authority? I’ll try to explain. Worldviews are expressed through day-to-day experiences. Recently I received nearly two identical letters from the Norfolk Broads Authority relating to two of my boats. They were generated from a database, identical apart from the name of the boat and each registration no.

The letters told me my boats weren’t compliant with Broads Authority standards:

Note the words ‘safety’ and the sentence ‘does not yet comply’.

Firstly, I had responded to the letter of 23/12/2020 but it seems that response never made it onto the database, from which this automated letter came. Secondly, the vessels don’t have a certificate because don’t need to: they do not meet the criteria for needing a Boat Safety Certificate.

Thirdly one of the boats hasn’t moved for years. It is sitting in my driveway awaiting restoration. I don’t think the Broads Authority remit covers my driveway, even in the rain. The other (sailing boat) mentioned isn’t one I actually own and definitely didn’t need a Boat Safety Certificate anyway.

So far so good though, nothing to get too worked up about it. It is just a misunderstanding. Despite trying to contact them again, nobody was on the end of the phone and the email in the letter doesn’t work. A bit annoying, but no more than that.

The letter then becomes more urgent and threatening:

OK, there’s a sense of urgency now.  I have 14 days (in bold!)  to respond, else they will:


So the first threat of an ENFORCEMENT PROCESS. It is backed up by the further threat of:

“FINE UP TO £2500”

and ultimately:


Just to recap. One of the boats in question is on my driveway, the other doesn’t need a certificate anyway and besides I don’t own it.

This is a typical approach from a worldview that sees safety as a priority. It involves demanding compliance or at least papers showing it, and threats if you can’t comply. “Show me your papers.”

What if it doesn’t make sense?

Neither boats had moved for years and weren’t going to sink. They were on a private mooring, in private water at a private marina.  Anyway, that’s beside the point – the authority’s rules are the rules and I am not arguing the finer points of what ‘adjacent waters’ are.

It’s a bit like you having an old broken down banger in your garage awaiting restoration and the government insisting you need to pay road tax, insurance and get it MOTd even though there’s no chance of it going anywhere. Imagine receiving a letter saying that if I didn’t comply they’d fine me, take it away and crush it. That’s what the Broads Authority were saying.

Show Me Your Papers

Whilst thankfully we are not (yet) living under with a totalitarian government or part of a policed state shown in those old films, I think we are sleepwalking towards it.

It is no coincidence that as the UK embraces liberalism as a worldview, the more authoritarian the governing bodies have to become. It’s also ironic that as liberal worldviews permeate society, the less tolerant people seem to be of others that don’t share the same view.

This dehumanising compliance culture isn’t restricted to councils or the Broads Authority. It has spread into private organisations to help in their profits too. Car park enforcement companies are like a disease in the UK.  These companies also have access to your personal information and use your lack of compliance to their rules to justify fining you. Like the Broads Authority, they will use threats and fines to remind you of your lack of compliance. Of course, you may have made a mistake by turning around in an area designated as being under their control, but that doesn’t matter to them.

Cultural Influence

The fundamental part of any worldview can have a huge positive impact on culture. It can also do the opposite in leading to a very dehumanised society. Once you see the worldview, it is relatively easy to predict the outcome. If safety and compliance are really the most important things, the outcome isn’t pretty. We should all be locked up for our own safety, stripped of our freedoms and spoon fed by the state until we die.

That may sound a bit extreme, but when you consider the amount of CCTV cameras, monitors, traffic lights, barriers, notices saying ‘no this’ or ‘no that’, warnings of fines etc, when will it end? When will things be safe enough? As long as people are free to make decisions for themselves, that point will never come. Places like the beautiful city of Norwich will become increasingly sterile, micro-managed and oppressive to experience. All in the name of safety.