Monday, 19 December 2011

The decline of democracy?

Weird starting with Francis Maude again but his "bonfire of the quangos" Public Bodies Act quietly came into force last week with Royal Assent. Putting aside the rather lacklustre execution to date of the quango cull it was the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) that attracted the most comment in a rather under-reported story.

Now the RDAs certainly are not perfect and for many have failed to deliver on some of their purposes, notably in getting match funding to accelerate economic development. You could as I do call this a problem of execution rather than function or you could see it as an exemplar of all that is wrong with quangocracy with all the placemen, red-tape, inertia etc beloved of red top ridicule.

Just for a moment step back and consider QUANGO - quasi autonomous non governmental organisation - organisations to which government has devolved power, which operate at arms length from Ministers and which in government parlance are referred to a Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs). Very much a product of 1980s thinking there are well over 1000, with 177 or so due to fall under the latest axe. And they sound like a mechanism for mediation too, for coordinating and focusing the often conflicting demands of different stakeholders in local issues, dispassionately, putting out some mfires and stoking others to, in the regional context, at least, seek ultimately to lead not follow.

The irony is that for some quangos offered a route for delivering traditional governmental services along more commercial lines, independently of politics and changeable government priorities and unencumbered by civil service practices and bureaucracy. And in so doing could in some cases, such as RDAs, be seen to provide a more local, coordinating perspective than heavility centralised sensibilities in Westminster.

So now we have the death of RDAs and the return to centralised edict, masked by the mantra of localism. In a perfect world there would be thriving vibrant communities with all the diversity of US sitcom networking, interacting, supporting each other in the daily struggle to maintain their environment across social, economic, environmental, political, cultural milieus. But it aint so an to pretend it is and will all be address by a multi-channel digital by default paradigm in two flicks of a lambs tail is naive. I beleive in all of that and wish it would be but wishing wont make it so and a huge investment in ripping up the rule book of design and delivery is needed to even begin the process; one hopes that GDS might make some headway in this direction.

In the meantime, back to localism. In the accepted absence for most of a coordinated localism rooted in consultation and compromise, localism comes very quickly to represent the worst shades of the human condition. Trade associations, lobbyists, vested interests and men with menaces, George Monbiot's elite 1% (well mostly) are incredibly adept at painting a prosperity canvas highly loaded in favour of laissez-faire 'development'. RDAs (or organisations like them) provide the sounding board, neutrality (though obviously can be gamed if you're in it for the long term), reference point, guidance, mechanism for consultation and compromise that most in any community would expect of their representatives and worthies.

Pork barrel politics and the presumption to approve (planning) will combine to steam roll through all kinds of misbegotten short term development in the interests of the few. The consequences, pickaxes and filth encrusted letterboxes notwithstanding, are the loss of planning, over-pressured resources, over-heated south east, the loss of more green lung space (SANGs anyone?) and the deliberate absenting of government from the one thing that it was elected for - allegedly to run the (whole) country.

A few years back I was in the Potteries, Newcastle-under-Lyme specifically and having never been there before was shocked and stunned to find an area, for all its legacy of skilled workforce, proximity to markets, excellent communications (really excellent actually) not to mention stunning environs, palpably down on its luck - it felt under-invested, forgotten almost. If those factors alone don't alert anyone still still expousing regional planning virtues to what could be done to coordinate and run the (whole) country (to the greater good and at lower cost) then I would be surprised. And in a digital, linked data world, we don't all have to be in Shoreditch or Holborn.

Trouble is localism is meant to solve this on its own and it can't when the whole process has been emasculated and opened up to gerrymandering - quangos may be undemocratic and counter-intuitively to have ended up over-extending the hand of government but localism is really another side of that same coin. That's government reneging on its remit to lead.

Why am I so vexed? - everything happens somewhere but something should happen just about everywhere, even if its peace and quiet!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post James, written in the finest JC style :-)

    I think you could write almost exactly the same thing about globalism, only in reverse. As you say everything happens somewhere but globalism, like localism, seems to have become a concept ratehr than a reality. It's the kind of thing that headquartered Powerpoint merchants put on their slides, but has become devoid of meaning.

    With the rise of the information economy our society seems to have become overly focused on 'managing' rather than 'doing'. Natural disasters are the only occasions left when humans show they can really get stuff done, which is sadly ironic. For the rest of the time we seem to be inventing ever new and meaningless challenges to pass the time. And then we wasted a good crisis with the financial meltdown. Obviously it wasn't quite enough of a disaster to make us get off our backsides!

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