The Danger of Master Plans


One of the dangers I’ve seen time and again in local government and the public sector at large (I’ve worked as a facilitator, trainer and consultant on and off in there for many years) is that the models of management in place are often based on discredited models from the private sector.

In recent dialogue with the Heritage Lottery Fund Bid team, in Brighton, who expressed their “ambitions” for the Royal Pavilion Estate, what shocked me most was the use of language that would, these days, be laughed out of court in a private sector company.

At the head of the list of buzz words and jargon I heard was the use of the phrase “Masterplan”. This was presented in a style that suggested a status to this “masterplan” than is higher than anything and anyone else in the city. Once the masterplan has been agreed (after “Consulation”), this document will supersede everything.

Next I saw inconsistent use of words such as “consultation”, “Ambition” and “research” all used interchangeable and by different members of the bid team. Now, the “ambition” are the things the team personally and collectively want, well in advance of any “consultation” and years before the writing of a final master plan. In reality, these ambitions are personal biases. I really am not sure how aware of their own biases members of this team are. This is public money we are talking about, and such huge projects should never begin from a place of bias.

I also saw the word “research” being used by one bid team member to downplay the notion that consultation had already taken place with the community who will be affected by the realisation of any masterplan. This team member claimed that consultation had not yet taken place, only “research”. When this research was described as over 700 conversations with local individuals and groups in the city, asking them for their views, what this clearly described was “consultation”! Another team member, claimed in the public arena that all sorts of consultation HAD taken place and, at no point, has agreed that this was just research.

On the back of all this mixed messaging, bias and inconsistency, the bid team are telling a key stakeholder in the gardens that he shouldn’t fear for his cafe as his “business” will be safe in any new plans. This is even as they offer up artist impressions which, if realised, show the cafe building and patio destroyed and built over. There is no data whatever that has been shared from the initial “research/consultation” that in any way indicates a desire for the cafe building or patio to be destroyed. In fact, quite the opposite. Many people have explicitly stated they want the cafe left alone!

This is game-playing. It’s unpleasant to be on the receiving end of it. But it is also very ineffective leadership and management. It generates mistrust and a backlash that tends to lose the original impulse he very support it needs.

In a year still mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, what represents best practice leadership in projects such as this is conscious, open styles of leadership; honesty and trust, partnership working and ethical dealing need to sit at the heart of all core processes.

It’s a pity the dominate style of management and communication is so rusty, out of date and disappointing.

The problem with master plans is they tend to become fixed, and they are about “masters”, which suggests slaves and servants.

Now, meet Bert…



Bert lives in Pavilion Gardens, the youngest of a long line of residents at the West End of the Gardens. Bert regularly grabs nuts from cafe regulars in exchange for playing the role of pleasure giver and inspirer of existential questions. Burt climbs up legs onto shoulders, in order to grab a nut, or just be brash. Bert knows nothing of master plans. Bert votes with his feet, loves the trees, the patio and the givers of nuts. Bert rarely engages in spin, though he can turn around at near lightning speed. Bert, unlike the bid team, is in touch with the gardens and the current cafe community on a daily basis. Even when the cafe has closed for the winter season, Bert is about and many cafe regulars leave monkey nuts for his winter store.

Bert doesn’t engage in management speak, yet he’s a manager of resources. Bert leads our curiosity. And Bert doesn’t want to be built all over in the name of revenue raising and master plans.

Master plans. Dictators have master plans…


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