It is commonplace in the modern UK political world for the politicians to share the general view of them as unsuited to making important long term decisions. So often the UK establishment in alliance with the front benches of the two main parties agrees that a matter is “too important” for politics, should be taken out of politics, and given to some all wise and expensive independent quango.
This is one of the more absurd ideas. In practice when one of these quangos gets it wrong and singularly fails to do its job, the cry goes up for the politicians to change it or its policies. It still usually suits all involved to blame the politicians rather than the wise independent body set up to the do the job. That body either resorts to the defence of inadequate resources, or decides to lose a senior person or two so the quango can self perpetuate with good jobs for all the rest involved. These quangos normally see their role as enforcing and following the endless laws from Brussels to avoid any controversy with their EU masters.
It is difficult to think of one of these bodies that has done a good job. The mother of them all, the Bank of England, presided over a spectacular failure of banking supervision and monetary policy in the period 2006-10 and has spent recent years blaming the commercial banks for what was at root a catastrophic failure of central banking, allowing too much credit and excess in the commercial sector. Doing better than the Bank would not have been difficult. I and others warned on the way up that credit was too loose – the main opposition parties warned the same. I then warned that too severe action to control the banks in 2007-8 would bring on a banking crash, which they duly did. Today the Bank of England shows a singular lack of touch over the future direction of interest rates, regularly changing its mind about the conditions for an increase. It seems happy to preside over a bond market artificially inflated by excess purchases by itself.
The Environment Agency has clearly failed to put in sufficient flood protection, preferring to spend its substantial grant in aid on other priorities in the main. The issue with the EA is one of analysis and recommendations on how to tackle excess water. I have had arguments with them over possible flood relief schemes for my areas which they simply refuse to recommend.
Network Rail has shown how little railway you can get for the huge sums of money tipped into it. They have been unable to provide extra rail capacity to time and to budget. They are fixated by the need to change the traction system from diesel to electric instead of the dealing with the basic need to provide more track to allow more trains to pass. They like spending large sums on expensive financial derivatives, and have for some unknown reason added substantial foreign and index linked debt to the nation’s balance sheet. Outside London they seem unable to harness the potential of their substantial property asset base.
By all means write in with any examples of quangos that do the job they are meant to do well, or with other examples to prove my point. In a democracy there is no such thing as an independent government body. The public expect their politicians to monitor, control and defend the public bodies they set up, and to appoint people to lead them who can do a good job. As the Infrastructure Body set up to take big schemes out of politics has found, the very first challenge of Heathrow turns out to be a big political decision which only the politicians can take.