Wake Me Up Before You Quango

Some people are their own worst enemies – just look at regeneration quangos.

The species is under threat as the government finds ways to save money. Yet on paper the case for quango survival seems impeccable.

London’s Docklands exists largely thanks to a quango back in the 1970s. Modern regeneration success stories like Corby’s transformation are down to several quangos acting in concert in the past decade.

Yet it’s easy to see why quangos are unpopular.

During the election campaign I asked seven (Labour) government departments for the definitive number of quangos – not one knew. A Treasury guesstimate said “somewhere between 790 and 1,100” although interestingly a (Conservative) government spokesman way back in 1994 said there were 5,000.

When I asked how many quangos were involved in residential work now, again there was no firm answer. “Probably hundreds, at a guess” said the Treasury.

Britain’s quango-heaven is the Thames Gateway. The Department of Communities and Local Government oversees regeneration; then add in seven Local Regeneration Partnerships, two Urban Development Corporations and three Sub-Regional Partnerships. The Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership links all the groups above while 25 other government departments have some input to Gateway developments.

Even with all that, housing delivery is reported to be well behind schedule - and it was behind, long before the recession.

So what will the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition do?

There is surely a case for having bodies to kick start urban regeneration – house builders and commercial property players simply will not take risks in emerging locations without public funds underwriting infrastructure, remediation and the like.

Should this be done by elected local authorities (with inexperienced councillors)? Or by unelected quangos (with a reputation for red tape)? The answer will provide an interesting sub-text to the headline-grabbing spending cuts of the coming year.

One thing is for certain – quangos still need saving from themselves.

This week the Homes and Communities Agency (led by Sir Bob Kerslake on £220,000 pa plus £20,000 bonuses) announced it would save £2m by restructuring and cutting accommodation. That decision could have been taken long before the election as a sign of strategic good house-keeping.

Yet the HCA waits until spending spotlights are on it before bothering – thus ensuring it all looks like self-preservation rather than strategic thinking, which is what quangos are supposed to bring to their work.

Some people just don’t get it, do they?

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