Ross and his wife and their baby son had moved into the town from a village a few miles out. They had got a house quickly because they were prepared to take one in the town’s worst estate. Within a couple of weeks they had transformed the place; cleaning, painting and repairing, the house was unrecognizable from the place they had rented the previous month.
Having turned the interior into somewhere bright and welcoming, Ross decided that he would then take on the garden. It was enclosed by a high fence and he wanted somewhere to grow vegetables as well as space for their baby to play, once it was able to walk.
The garden had not been cultivated in years. The accumulation of long neglect was cleared away; the rubbish, the scrap and the clumps of weeds. Pushing the fork down into the soil one evening, Ross hit something hard. Taking hold of a spade, he dug a hole to discover a car engine had been buried in the garden. Ross couldn’t fathom why anyone would have gone to the lengths of actually burying a car engine, but with great effort levered it from the hole and pushed it onto the garden path. He had no car of his own with which he might have transported it anywhere, and, even if he had, wondered where one would take a scrap engine filled with soil.
The next day he phoned the Housing Executive to say that he was renting one of their houses and had been trying to reclaim the garden and had found this engine and would they be able to arrange for its removal? The Housing Executive said that waste disposal was not their responsibility and that he would need to phone the District Council.
Ross phoned the District Council and explained about the car engine and asked if someone could come to remove it, as he had no means of transporting it and no idea where it should go. The man in the council said they dealt only with domestic waste that was collected each week from the wheelie bins and that they could do nothing about a car engine. The best thing that he could do, the man suggested, was to ring the Department of the Environment.
Ross contacted someone in the Department of the Environment and told the story of his garden reclamation and asked what he was to do with the car engine. The official in the Department of the Environment explained that they could not deal with such matters and wondered what might be done.
“Do you live beside a road?” asked the official.
“We live beside a road through the estate?”
“Can you move the engine?”
“I can drag it, but I can’t lift it”.
“Well, I’ll tell you what to do. Drag the engine out of your garden and into the road, then phone the police. Tell the police that you were walking through the estate and noticed that someone had dumped an old engine in the road and that it is causing an obstruction. The police will come and look at it and then a lorry from the Roads Service will come and move it”.
Ross was too honest to accept the suggestion and a move to another parish meant I never heard the fate of the engine.
Ross’s gardening was in the days of Mrs Thatcher’s government that had dedicated itself to reducing bureaucracy and cutting though red tape. By the time Mrs Thatcher left office, bureaucracy was greater than it had been in 1979.
As the Finance Minister contemplates swingeing cuts in Wednesday’s budget, it would be worth bearing in mind the capacity of government departments to pass burdens on to someone else.