Regional government does not work – behind the scenes in quangoland

Yesterday I was invited to lunch in the House of Commons by the Thames Valley Economic Partnership.

It was the kind of invitation I usually decline, as I do not approve of lunches at the public expense for public servants. I went because the rules of the game to get approval and money for important transport projects in my constituency require that I express agreement with other MPs, Councils and quangos over the needs of the ??region?? in order to persuade the Minister to consider our case. The Minister came to the lunch. I did not wish to let the side down, and have to accept the rules of the game as designed by this present government.

The lunch began with a speech telling us
??We have all the stakeholders and all the people that matter in transport in the Thames Valley around this table??. The list comprised 6 local government officials, 1 Councillor, 6 MPs, 4 representing the Thames Valley partnership, 5 from central government and its quangos and 16 others mainly from private sector companies. Local and national government officials were well represented.

I bit my lip ?? surely the most important people are the passengers who use the transport system, and surely there are more than a handful of companies involved in delivering the complex transport services of our large region? Are these not important ??stakeholders??? I restrained myself from shouting out ??Lese-majeste to the voters??, or even ??These lunching emperors have no clothes??.

The Partnership explained to the Minister of State, Transport, that the region had three agreed priorities ?? more capacity on the M4, better north-south links and western access to Heathrow by train. All the assembled ??stakeholders?? agreed or kept their silence. Few of us had actually agreed to these ??priorities?? but it would have been pointless as well as churlish to complain again about these things being done in our name by unelected officials after the previous private rows about it all. Some of what they wanted made sense and it was our one chance this year to make the points to the Minister in such a forum.

The Minister told us that usually regions fail to reach an agreement about what they want. They also often fail to get all their Councils to speak from the same script. She had to overcome her surprise and see we were apparently united in seeking stated improvements to the woefully inadequate infrastructure of the Thames valley. Clearly these meetings normally end with the Minister giving the ??region?? a lecture on the need for regional harmony and unity, no doubt all part of the indoctrination programme to get people thinking of themselves as part of an artificial regional set up. Such a happy state of affairs from the Ministers point of view puts off all decisions for an other year or so and gives the government the luxury of blaming everyone else for the transport chaos.

The whole performance summed up admirably what has gone wrong with modern government. A large number of people drawing generous salaries from the state sit round endless discussing a problem which has obvious solutions. We are short of transport capacity so we need to provide more. As a result of this meeting it is unlikely the government will make any decision.

I pressed the Minister to tell us what she would do about the lack of capacity on the M4 . She asked all of us what our ideas were. I pointed out the M4 is a central government road. The Minister on our behalf owns it, regulates it, manages it and has all the power she needs to vote money to improve it and to change the law and regulations affecting it. Her colleague decides planning cases concerning it.

As I explained to her, the private sector will respond with technical solutions and with private money if she wants to make improvements, but it is her job to make some decisions so she can harness the private sector. If she wants new tolled capacity then the private sector can design and create it. If she wants a more traditional public sector scheme there will be plenty of bidders. If she wishes to use new technology to improve traffic flows and management there are plenty of systems to choose from. What she not expect the private sector to so is to waste a lot of their time and money on working out several different schemes and solutions without any guidance from government about what they want and what their time scale for action might be.

My betting is that next year there will need to be another meeting, and the most that will come out of this is more work for consultants to do some more feasibility studies. No wonder we are short of transport capacity, and no wonder public budgets dont go very far. If every time people agree on the need for some extra capacity the private sector is expected to juggle toll lanes, toll roads, design build and operate, private finance and traditional options without any clue from the government on what they want and without a Minister capable of making a decision we are going nowhere fast.

It is pathetic. Government is at a standstill. I proposed a scheme for redeveloping Wokingham Station and creating a transport interchange on the Network Rail land there early in the life of this government. It could have been paid for largely or wholly out of development gain on the public land. We are still waiting, because no Minister is capable of getting things to happen, and Network Rail clearly does not wish to exploit its property assets properly in places like Wokingham. We just have to put up with a slum station and inadequate parking at the site.

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10 Comments

  1. Simon_C
    Posted January 17, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    It does seem that things take far too long to organise, and too many people sit around talking about things and not actually doing things.

    But, since you mention it, here's some of my thoughts about the M4.

    Local road "improvements" should not be allowed to impact motorways (I'm thinking here of the frequent situation where traffic gets backed up on the M4 both ways around J11.

    And, although it's been a while since I commuted on the M4 daily, it was my observation a few years ago that the biggest problems was in junction capacity, not road capacity. Things were normally slowed down because there was too much traffic joining the motorway with too short slip roads. This caused the main carrage ways to slow down too much.

    I really can't comment on Rail though. One of the problems i think in trying to get people to use more public transport is that the only way it can compete on price with the car is if you commit to it and get rid of the 2nd family car. If you're already paying the tax/insurance/depreciation on your car, then the train or bus fair seems expensive compared to the petrol costs. Even when petrol is

  2. Posted January 17, 2008 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    John,

    I am aware or can guess what lies under rocks, but it is always good to have someone lift a particularly large and embedded one to see all the nasty parasites that lurk beneath.

    What is so appalling is the need for you to pitch up and play along with the entire game. These people would not last 3 minutes, let alone 5 minutes in a commercial environment.

    The Regional bodies need to be dismantled ASAP, IMHO.

    Reply: I agree we need to abolish them. In the meantime occasionally we need to see what is going on, and to expose the waste of it all.

  3. tally
    Posted January 17, 2008 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Redwood, the Conservatives are participating in these Regional Quangos! All they have to do is walk away and save council tax payers money at the same time.
    While RA'S exist England is notionally divided and is in danger of being abolished. Why do the Conservatives play by New Labour's rules?

    Reply: The Conservative Council in Wokingham did move the abolition of our regional assembly.

  4. Posted January 17, 2008 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    "…what has gone wrong with modern government. A large number of people drawing generous salaries from the state sit round endless discussing a problem which has obvious solutions"

    Very well put sir.

  5. Posted January 17, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    You neatly sum up the "jobs for the boys" attitude with no tangible results or even direction that exists in many, many quangos. A proposal? Mandatory annual sunset clauses on all quangos, as they will never propose their own abolition

  6. Colin Baker
    Posted January 17, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Mr Redwood

    Regretfully, like the rest of your party, you think that by playing the Scottish First Minister for England's game on English regionalisation you will actually achieve something. Then you wonder why we don't trust any current politicians. May I recommend that you challenge regional organisations, not kowtow to them.

    If your party really wants to do something useful, try to muscle an English presence into the current incestuous government meeting between MSPs and Scottish Westminster MPs, that are bent on giving more power to Scotland. They even have the temerity to ask for special funding on top of their already generous pay.

    Even better, support an English Parliament, so that the people of England can decide their own transport initiatives.

    Reply: I do not play the game of regionalisation – I have regularly pressed for the abolition of English regional government and oppose its quangos at every turn.

  7. mikestallard
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    We got exactly the same here in Wisbech – but on a smaller scale. The idea was (for the last ten years) to develop the old gasworks into a site which would regenerate the entire area. Loads of discussions. Now it is earmarked as a housing estate.
    I understand that our A14 is under the same problems that you yourself face.

    To me this is a direct result of being in Europe.
    Why?
    Well, if you have a minister (like yourself) who speaks out and thinks, they are not wanted. They are not, as you said, playing the game.
    I bet her eyes – and those of the other lunchers – were closed while you spoke.
    What you need is, actually, your secretary to attend lots of meetings and report back.
    Power, as she said, comes from the top down.

  8. Posted January 18, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I detest regionalisation – it's a cancer that needs to be excised from England. Like a tumour, it multiplies and grows and takes over the good stuff.

    There are so many regional quangos now and they all own bits of each other with the regional development agencies sitting atop them all with their fingers in every rotten pie. The pot of money is the same size but now there are more and more hands dipping into it all in the name of "regeneration" and each time they dip their hands in they take a bit more to cover their costs. They even bid against each other for a share of the money, wasting even more money in the process and for what? It doesn't make anything better for the man on the street.

    Unfortunately, the Tories aren't the answer. Camoron is a committed eurofederalist and as long as we remain inside the European federal superstate we will have to have ever more regional government because that is what Federal Europe insists on. Get a conservative in charge of the party and things might improve.

  9. E.Justice
    Posted January 18, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Redwood ,
    you may have regularly pressed for the end of the "regionals"
    But have you regularly pressed for a Parliament for England?
    Something your leader will not even think about

  10. Colin
    Posted January 19, 2008 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    John Redwood obviously does not like the facts to get in the way of a good blog.
    I stand to be corrected, but I dont think the public sector paid for the lunch in the House of Commons; I think he will find that business and the community did so.
    They were there for good reason. They are sick and tired of government inaction on the decaying transport infrastructure in the Thames Valley, and very much need the regions MPs to act together to press the transport secretary to come up with proposals, precisely as Mr Redwood suggests should be the case.
    He is right to criticise the regional assembly, which has done little, if anything, for the Thames Valley in general, or Wokingham in particular. But where was he when the assemblys draft South East plan concluded that no improvements to the M4 need be considered until well into the next decade?
    It was the Thames Valley Economic Partnership that took the battle to the tortuous public hearings into the plan. In the face of considerable hostility from the bureaucrats from Guildford, TVEP was able to persuade the inspectors to recommend that the plan should include action on the M4. As far as I am aware neither the regional assembly nor the government has yet accepted this published recommendation. In the event that the Conservatives do not form the next government, and tip the bucket on the regional assembly, we shall still have the SE Plan,and therefore need to make sure proposals for a radical overhaul of transport infrastructure are in it.
    He is right that the passengers of the railways and the users of the M4 should have a voice. That is why I was asked to chair a transport workshop on November 2, to which all MPs, including Mr Redwood, were invited. He could not come, but Theresa May, MP for Maidenhead, was there, and able to hear the wide variety of views expressed.

    Reply: I think you will find the public sector paid the salaries of many of those present at the lunch, and their expenses to get there and back.
    I have endlessly made representations directly about the need for more transport capacity, and have made the point often enough in the Commons. We do not need a regional quango to do it as well.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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