Fyson on ... Quango accountability

Quango accountability deliberations that expose contradictions over localist decision powers.

The purge of quangos does not seem to have been the mammoth cost-saving exercise that most Tories anticipated. Neither has it done anything to promote localism ahead of national government. It could even be interpreted as an attempt to extend state control over bodies whose autonomy, while only partial, has still been an embarrassment.

In an odd inversion of localist ideals, the regime apparently sees non-departmental public bodies as lacking democratic accountability - an inadequacy notably overlooked in the encouragement of community initiatives at the level where local government has representative responsibilities.

The review signally failed to reveal the expected preponderance of bodies which perform no useful role. From a total of 901, 420 remain untouched and of the 192 that will cease to be public entities, many will either be brought back into government or independently reconstituted. A further 118 will be merged down to 57 and 171 will be reformed in some way.

The responsible minister, Francis Maude, claimed that people are fed up with government ducking difficult decisions by "hiding behind one of these quangos", conveniently forgetting the suspicion of politically motivated top-down decisions that his big society colleagues complain about.

Maude's contradictory arguments led him to claim that absorption into government departments allows the line of accountability to "run right up to the top where it always should have been" while his proposals would "give more power to the frontline professionals" who know services best.

There are in fact very few high-spending quangos, and they use most of their resources in grants. They are generally not to be found in the environment or development fields, where a motley collection of organisations has mostly met the criteria identified as justifying continued existence by performing a technical function or requiring political impartiality.

Under the DCLG, the Planning Inspectorate is strengthened, with a new right to self-police its standards and a new unit to take on infrastructure planning responsibilities. English Heritage survives at the DCMS but reform of CABE is still being considered and under DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Natural England must undergo reform requiring more efficiency and customer focus.

These are all authoritative bodies that pursue their goals by feeding effectively into the planning process. Their survival indicates that an entirely market-driven development sector is not the threat that some recent political rhetoric has suggested.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.


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