Accidental Activist

Bloke Down the Pub: Long-Term Planning, Hamilton Style

Too often, Hamilton City Council seems to pull its ideas and arguments - solar powered planes?! - out of thin air.

By Ben Bull
Published September 15, 2005

One of my favourite British sketch comics of the last decade is a bloke called Harry Enfield. Enfield's 1990 show, "Harry Enfield's Television Programme", was a huge hit in the UK, and even today it remains firmly rooted in the national psyche.

One of my favourite characters was a jabbermouth cockney wide-boy who was forever barging into someone's conversation to pass along a tall tale or two.

"You know that Marilyn Monroe?" he would say.


"Well, she was really a bloke."

"Really? Who told you that?"

"Bloke down the pub."

"Bloke down the pub?"

"Yeah. Bloke down the pub."

"Oh ... then it must be true."

Every week we were treated us to another amusing "fact", courtesy of the "bloke down the pub".

"The Space Shuttle is made out of cardboard."

"President Nixon had bionic arms."

And even, "The Pope isn't really Polish."

"He isn't?"

"No, he's Welsh."

And every week we knew this was all true because ... well, because the "bloke down the pub" told us so.

Anyone who's ever propped up a bar for an afternoon can conjure up this 'bloke.' Think Cliff Claven of Cheers. This bloke can be found slumped at the bar slurping his beer and imparting words of wisdom to anyone within earshot. He's the only person in the world who knows the truth about the moon landings, and who shot JFK.

Seventeen years on, I was reminded of this character during my trip to Hamilton City Hall. I was attending the Aerotropolis proposal presentation being made to the Planning and Development Committee.

During the public presentations being made in response to the proposal from Guy Papparella, City Director of Industrial Park and Airport Development, it became clear that the issues of job creation, agricultural land loss, and something called, Peak Oil, were very much on people's minds.

"How will Peak Oil affect this project?" several people asked, to which a Chamber of Commerce rep replied that that we would "find new energy sources - including solar."

Solar powered planes? I wondered. Hmm, that sounds familiar ...

Then I remembered: That's right! It's Bullshit! But not just any old Bullshit: 'Don't worry. We'll think of something' was pure bloke down the pub bullshit, and no mistake.

I half expected the Mayor to join in the charade.

"Who told you this, then?"

"Bloke down the pub."

"Bloke down the pub?"

"Yeah. Bloke down the pub."

"Well, why didn't you say? This motion is carried!"

Another worrying 'fact' turned up in the estimate for the number of jobs the Aerotropolis project would provide. The proposal indicated that up to 52,000 jobs would be created. This number has since been widely questioned and found to be based on several dubious comparisons.

A few weeks on I thought I had just about shaken off my incredulity - until I read Ryan McGreal's interview with Larry DiIanni.

"I'm being told that ... alternative fuel sources are readily available, and it's only that the oil companies like the profits that they're making, and they won't allow that technology to move forward. Whether it's solar powered technology or whatever it happens to be."

Uh-oh, I thought to myself. There's that bloke again.

"I mean, I don't want to, you know, be overly simplistic about this and point to some futuristic dream like we've seen in movies or in cartoons about, you know, having our own means of flying around with our own personal little machines, but I think that's probably doable. And quite frankly, I think that innovation and technology - although I don't put all my eggs in that basket - mankind is clever enough to find some solutions to the oil problems that we're going to be experiencing."

"Mankind". How much do we really trust "mankind", I wondered. Wasn't it "mankind" - i.e. me and you and Hamilton City Council - that got Hamilton into this fine mess in the first place? It seemed to me that "mankind" was more adept at screwing things up than making sensible plans for the future.

Speaking for myself, I certainly don't want to rely on just "mankind".

Another thing bothered me, too. Although I am not a business owner, I have, during my seven years as an IT Consultant, developed and reviewed a number of business plans, each prepared to support some major IT investment or another. I have learned from this experience that the due diligence involved in preparing these important documents is extensive. For the most part, these plans involved modest to large amounts of cash - usually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - and it would be fair to describe the process of justifying these expenditures as, well, onerous.

So how, then, I wondered as I remembered the twenty minute Aerotropolis PowerPoint our City staff had tried to pass off as a "business case," does our City get away with working like this? How is it that we are able to rezone a thousand hectares of farmland without even taking so much as a wild guess towards the potential expenditures involved, or bothering to offer even a token remark towards oil depletion? And how is acceptable for us to stick a lazy finger in the air, twitch our nose, and then inform the public, with sincere certainty, that 'many thousands' of jobs will be created?

Ryan McGreal attempted to broach this issue of undue diligence during his interview: "A lot of the citizens, who spoke at the [public] meetings expressed concerns that aerotropolis will harm Hamilton's air quality, destroy farmland, result in more and longer commutes, more sprawl. Has an environmental impact assessment been done?"

Mayor DiIanni: "Well, that's part of what needs to be done ... there's a process, where: here are the questions, now go out and get the answers and we'll see what we do at the end of the day."

So basically, because the airport rezoning approval is only the beginning of the Aerotropolis "process," we didn't need all these answers up front - right?

I'm not so sure. In fact I'm quite certain that there is simply no excuse for our city forging ahead with this expensive and potentially divisive investigative process without having first completed an appropriate level of due diligence. It is at best, irresponsible, and at worst - suspicious.

Recent musings from Hamilton's die-hard activists have suggested that the Aerotropolis is already a "done deal", a thought that has been fuelled by at least one confidential conversation we've had with a city source these past few weeks.

So what are we to make of all this? Sloppy research, out of touch councillors, backroom back slapping, sulking citizens ... sounds like business as usual to me!

Where will we go from here? It seemed to me initially, when this project first started to blow up, that Hamilton's more engaged citizen collectives might gear themselves up for another Red Hill type adventure.

Ryan's withering dismissal of the airport plan as a "hundred million dollar mistake" and CATCH's equally feisty news reports convinced me that this would be the case. But then, Hamiltonians for Progressive Development entered the fray.

With their optimistic opening salvos - "We need to engage each other collaboratively," and "whether HPD or some other group can stimulate, encourage, support, that kind of two-way process, that is what we are aiming for" - I began to think we might be shaping up for a slightly different contest this time around.

If nothing else, HPD certainly appear to be fostering a more open and cooperative approach towards the traditionally closed-door politics of 71 Main St.

Whatever happens, it's clear that the Aerotropolis affair is shaping up to be an interesting excursion. With two private OMB appeals and, of course, the one from the province, and a recently initiated Peak Oil impact analysis on the go (an independent analysis which was, we have been reliably informed, a direct result of all this citizen unrest) there will be lots to watch out for.

Here's hoping our political elite are learning some lessons from all of this, including:

  1. Be open and honest and transparent at all times,
  2. Disrespect your constituents at your peril and,
  3. Don't pretend to know what you are talking about, especially when you don't.

Most of all, when it comes to establishing the cold hard facts to back up an important municipal decision, I hope our elected representatives will remember this simple lesson: check your facts.

If it seems like the latest Hamilton mega-project is just 'plain common sense' and the data to support it are all 'thoroughly well-founded', then you might just want to take a moment and smell the breath of the person who gave it to you.

Chances are, if he's been backing any of Hamilton's mega-projects lately, he may have been spending a little too much time hanging out with a bloke down the pub.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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