February 08, 2014

The not so great and not so good

Forget the waffly reports in today's Telegraph about the Somerset Levels written by their reporting stars. Look instead at two very interesting letters there.

One is from Lord De Ramsey, first chairman of the Environment Agency (EA). He tells us that
At Easter 1998, 142 constituencies in England and Wales were flooded.
Today's floods are not so 'biblical' then (to use David Cameron's word). And so the Somerset Levels inundation can hardly be blamed on climate change old global warming.

And then who did the ineffable John Prescott choose to succeed Lord De Ramsey? One Barbara Young, plucked from being Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - which she continued to protect during her tenure at the EA from 2000 to 2008. According to Lord De Ramsey
she set common sense on its head, called for pumping stations to be blown up and cut maintenance by putting environment first and food and villages second.
(Her appointment to the EA led to her becoming a non-affiliated member of the House of Lords. "Previously she had taken the Labour Party whip." A Labour luvvie in disguise, then - was that common practice? And can this be the same Barbara Young who went on to head the CQC so scandalously after her disastrous turn at the EA? Indeed it can.)

A second letter is from one David Jordan, who is (for the moment) Director of Operations, Environment Agency. Responsibility for protecting the Dawlish rail line sits with Network Rail, he writes, and "we recently met them to discuss the Exeter flood-risk management scheme and its interaction with the rail line to Exeter". Now comes the money quote:
There was no suggestion by us that their work to protect the area where the line was damaged could be delayed by a study of local bird life.
But this was not what the EA was accused of by Peers and others who attended a meeting with the EA. The EA had said it was considering putting extra sand on the beach at Dawlish - and that was the scheme which would have to wait a year while they conducted a survey of the possible effects on birdlife.

Surely the EA has had its day. It's a supposedly independent agency, supposedly free of what some see as ministerial interference. Yet when its policies fail, the government of the day is blamed.

Charles Moore argues today (at too great length) that no one capable of running the EA would volunteer for the obloquy that goes with the job. A whistleblowing blog attacks it as wasteful and over-staffed. That's probably true but it's not the fundamental problem.

Nor is the main problem that ministers tend to dole out leading roles to incompetent cronies with their own personal agendas such as Barbara Young (a serial incompetent, now heading Diabetes UK) and Chris Smith. Both of them unqualified for the role, both with several other jobs, many paid for by taxpayers. The occasional strong minister could put strong people in charge.

The fundamental issue is the EA itself. It has too much power and too little accountability. Independent agencies must have a defined function within a tight mandate. Even the DVLA is criticised for some of its policies, and its responsibilities are far narrower than those of the EA (when should it release car owners' addresses to third parties, for instance?).

Funding has to be distributed nationally, involving decisions ministers should account for (as they do with grants to local authorities). Operational decisions should be taken and implemented locally and accountably. The specialist local bodies already exist and just need to be given more resources.

Bonfire of the quangos, anyone?!

There's a policy for UKIP. Less cronyism, more power to local people.

P.S. Richard North tweets to point out that this post ignores the EU dimension, and of course he's right, as ever. However, these incompetents choose to defend their performance in its own terms, not by using the EU as an excuse. So that's how we should judge them.

Let's deal with the EA in the way that's right for England, and let the Brussels frites fall as they may.

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