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Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

Size matters - smaller is better

France's "human spider-man" dwarfed by skyscraper
Dwarfed by a skyscraper


Want to go large on housing, schools, prisons, hospitals or simply pricetags? Bad idea - keeping a lid on size is the way to go, says Katharine Whitehorn.

Monday's papers carried news of a way of stopping the HIV virus getting hold of healthy cells, and there were pictures of these things looking like the kind of baubles you hang on a Christmas tree.

HIV virus
The HIV virus, magnified

We take it for granted we have photos of such things, which are infinitely small and certainly can't be seen with the naked eye. And, at the other end of the scale, the next day we'll be counting in zillions - the unimaginable distances that it's calculated some of the furthest stars in the universe may be.

What has become completely irrelevant is any idea of scale based on us human beings.

It's said that such things can work with streamlined efficiency, but somewhere along the line we seem to have lost our sense of the scale of what works for people and groups of people.
Instant communications systems, incredible ways of using steel and glass have made it possible to build bigger and bigger buildings, larger merged organisations, wider alliances, huger institutions. And some of it's a disaster.

In Robert Graves's book Count Belisarius, he wrote that when they told Belisarius that an army of 100,000 troops was mustering against him, he calmly said: "Very few generals can manage an army of a hundred thousand."

And when they said: "It's now 150,000", he'd say: "Even fewer generals can manage an army of 150,000."


But the army, bad though it may be at the provision of enough body armour or clean married quarters, does know how to divide itself into manageable bits. Even a battalion is usually only about 600. A major commands a company that isn't more than 200, and he is expected to know all their names; and a captain or a lieutenant deals with a platoon of just 40 to 50 people. It has learned that this is what works.

Size matters

It's not just generals, either, who need to be brilliant to cope with vast numbers.

Katharine Whitehorn

In the City there used to be such a thing as shame, but that was before it all went worldwide

A short time ago a report found that behavioural problems were much worse in really large comprehensives than in smaller schools. The whole argument about whether comprehensives are better, worse or the same as the old unfair 11-plus has left this out - that half the problems of vast comprehensives are nothing to do with mixed ability, but everything to do with sheer size.

But aren't the renowned public schools also huge? Yes, and they mostly work OK, at least in terms of an absence of riot and GBH.

But they're broken down into houses of a smaller size, with a housemaster and house tutor, not to mention a matron, so there are always at least one or two people who know about every single boy or girl.

A head in charge of 1,500 pupils can't know more than a few of them, and the place takes an entirely different kind of control. Certainly there are some marvellous heads who do make brilliant schools even out of these huge comprehensives; but never enough, it's far harder.

Yet my local borough, Camden, in sore need of a new school in the south, is not building one of a sensible size there; it's determined to have one mammoth school to serve a far wider area.

Grandiose ideas, big projects. Thinking big always seems so attractive, but it can be a crucial mistake. The vast projects built after the war to relieve the dismal slums of the past are the lawless sink estates of today; in many ways they don't work as well as the old insanitary huddled cottages.

Garden of one's own

Baroness Mary Stocks was pointing out decades ago that the wide green communal spaces beloved of 1960s idealists were far less satisfying psychologically than the grotty little backyards where a family could keep its rabbits, its nasturtiums, its rusty pram that might or might not be needed again.

Children gardening on a new estate in Hackney, 1939
Few estates retain communal gardens

And it's not only modern schemes that can be too big. Look at some of the ghastly Victorian institutions.

In the early 1980s Albert Kushlik, a charismatic doctor in Southampton, realised that when badly disabled children were sent out to such vast asylums in the country, their families found it hard to visit, and dispirited mothers gave up bringing their children new clothes because the communal laundry reduced them all to grey rags. He figured that in a town the size of Southampton - about 200,000 people - there were only about 40 such children; so he started two houses, one in the north of the town, one in the south, for about 20 children each.

These were feasibly near their families, who could identify with the place, visit their kids often, give clothes to their own children that could be washed in a domestic washing machine and go on looking like real clothes. Parents could get to know the staff well and help out overnight if a professional went sick.

You'd think, by now, some of this might have sunk in; it's 30 years since Sir Frederick Catherwood was lecturing on the diseconomies of scale. But even recently they've been talking about "super jails".

At least they have stopped erecting such vast bins for people with mental health problems, although University College Hospital, already big enough to house 100 sick elephants, has dropped its idiotic plan - for the time being - to merge with the Royal Free. This would have required even more communications systems and even more disruption when, as always happens, the systems break down.

And it's not just mechanical systems either: in another hospital - Southampton again - the consultants, according to a brain surgeon friend, all used to meet on a Friday for lunch and swapped knowledge about patients and problems. Then came an expansion, with everyone eating in a huge democratic hall, and this invaluable time of communication was lost. So it goes.

Up to 11

The question of size is not just about organisational efficiency. It also affects what motivates people to do what they do.

British Army dining tent
Looking out for one's mates

A few fanatics, geniuses or saints may strive only to match their own ambitions - to climb the highest mountain, fast for a fortnight, memorise the whole of Paradise Lost. But most people simply want to relate to those around them.

I've heard it said that 11 is the maximum useful unit, for example, for those asked to do anything really dangerous and difficult. The same number for frontline soldiers and people 100 feet down a mine. A man will put himself at serious risk to save one of his mates, but not for the 29th miner down the line.

And surely some of the glue that holds society together, makes people behave one way or another, is simply how they will measure up to those around them.

Luxury handbags on sale
A bargain at half-price?

You might say that everyone works for money and so, of course they do, to the extent of liking a car that doesn't break down, pretty clothes and a warm house.

But the really big bucks are about something else - about being top dog.

The women who pay 2,000 for a handbag are not really saying it's so beautiful it's worth that daft sum of money, they want it because it proves how well they're doing. As it is for the idiot who'll pay 500 for a bottle of wine long after he's too far gone to appreciate it, he's simply saying "I'm a bigger tiger than you are" to those whose opinion he cares about. Money is how you keep score.

Money talks

And in a globalised world, it tends to be the only way - that's the trouble. In the City there used to be such a thing as shame, but that was before it all went worldwide.

English cricket hierarchy with Sir Allen Stanford
Being shown the money

In Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, set in mid 19th Century New York, the banker Julius indulges in some shady business - and no-one will speak to him at the opera. Socially, he is ruined.

There's nothing like that now: the financial world, like so much else, is just too big. Who, in our world, is going to make even suspected fraudsters like Madoff or Stanford feel ostracised and despised?

"No matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back," said anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Communes aren't in fashion right now, it's conglomerates and global empires. But in the end we can all relate only to a certain number of people; a unity more or less like a family.

So I'm not trying to be coarse if I simply say, size does matter.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The EU is beginning to learn that small is beautiful: in a recession different countries need different economic policies - the current one size fits all is about to unravel.
Tim Fox, Beckenham

Each small unit needs a chief, a sub-chief, chief financial bod, chief people person etc, economics of scale do work in the correct environ, if just to cut down on the chiefs!
Colin Watts, Bournemouth UK

Catherine, in communications theory, it's a fundamental point there's always a constant battle between "signal", (the information you want to communicate), and "noise", (anything that diminishes the purity of that communication). It follows, therefore, the best way to avoid signal and noise from becoming increasingly confused, (i.e., the 'Chinese whispers' effect), is to keep the number of links in the chain of transmission to a bare minimum. Yet in spite of living in an age where the awareness of this principle enables us to create and sustain the accuracy of the electronic infrastructure we're all so dependent on, we continue to see the incessant process of huge unwieldy business corporation mergers; the ongoing creation of still more unnecessary tiers of management, everywhere; still more hugely unnecessarily costly and ineffective private finance/public sector hybrids; and now, as you say, we're being lined up for super doctor's surgeries, super jails, and super schools.
Alanborky, Liverpool, UK

New Zealand is living, moving proof that small is best. Even our cities are smaller than some suburbs of Chicago or London. And wide, open spaces too. Population: sheep, millions of them. People, four million.
Nicholas Scott, Katikati, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

This discussion couldn't be more right - and deep down we all know it - except it seems for the planners of such huge schemes. Once something has got so big that is loses its humanity - then it is no longer effective. Schools are such a point in case; I live in a rural area where our Primary schools tend to be small - and VERY effective. Discipline is not an issue generally, and the schools tend to be like an extension of the family. How many huge Primary Schools have the Year 6 pupils in tears on their last day? Ours do - annually. I have worked in many schools - the big ones have always generally been the ones with the behaviour problems.
Alex Jakob-Whitworth, Penrith

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