Big Society rhetoric seems to be finding its mark as the spending review cuts take hold.
Quango culling is a blood sport enjoyed across political lines, but the open season is extracting a high toll from the building, design and planning sectors. The cuts look even more unkind after a phoney war in which it seemed the bonfire promised in the summer might fizzle into a campfire.
Hostilities have now broken out, as Cabe goes and the London Development Agency is gutted. The other Regional Development Agencies got notice in June. Survivors speak bravely through the jargon of cuts: the Homes & Communities Agency looks forward to its future as a “more streamlined enabling and investment agency”.
Others that don’t survive sound even braver: the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation was always a “limited life agency” – with the job evidently done on regeneration of East London, it can hand over to notional “successor agencies” and retire to Canvey Island, like a pensioner squeezed out of Stratford.
Some government spin on this is sorrowful, but most is bullish. Much has been made of the protection of infrastructure budgets and the new opportunities to be had designing nuclear power stations, but the Infrastructure Planning Commission was among the first to go.
Not content with cutting this agency, ministers also felt compelled to kick it. Greg Clark – decentralisation minister, in coalition newspeak – declared that decisions on major infrastructure should be taken not by “unelected commissioners” in a “distant quango” (actually, they’re in Bristol), but by the “people’s elected representatives”.
That is, ministers. Of course big infrastructure decisions require democratic legitimacy, but how does giving this power to ministers square with decentralisation? And isn’t the fact such decisions are “crucial to every community in the country” an argument for an independent planning body, rather than for pork-barrelling over infrastructure investment?
Not all these organisations will be missed – some we didn’t know we had – but quango-bashing avoids two larger issues.
First, there is good reason for certain tasks involving allocation of public money or regulation of public services to be done by independent bodies – overseen, at arm’s length, by ministers. Being unelected is not always a bad thing when political churn can de-rail projects or muddy due process.
Secondly, neither a disinterested market nor the vested interests of industry will finance many of the functions being lost. Only four of the more than 750 organisations on the government’s initial list were earmarked for privatisation. The notion that Prince Charles might take on design review is a comic or tragic sideline, but says something about the market for independent scrutiny when local authorities can’t afford it and developers don’t want it.
Meanwhile, it is almost touching to hear the culled, the threatened and the chastened embrace the language of localism that even Tory focus groups find meaningless – somehow recalling the way we once all learned to talk about “joined-up” government.