Sunday 3 August 2008

Not my fault, Guv

Depressingly the Government has won the vote on its new planning proposals. The most important matter for me is allowing an unelected commission to decide major planning decisions, rather than a politician. Politicians have many flaws. But they are at least elected: they ultimately have to face voters.

It’s quite understandable that it should want to increase the speed of decisions for major infrastructure projects. Such projects cause costs which are easily identifiable at a local level or to single interest groups, and give benefits which can be longer term and spread across a large number of people. But ultimately, balancing conflicting issues is a matter of judgement. It’s not a matter of expertise which can be delegated: it’s political.

Passing difficult decisions to an independent body, politicians evade responsibility for them. Yes, it means short term electoral pressures don’t get in the way of a good long term decision. But who decides what is “good” and “long term”? That surely is why we have politicians, almost the only reason to have them rather than just efficient administrators: people who make judgement calls about tricky decisions. I find it ironic that MPs are demanding more cash at the same time as they do less.

The poster child for this approach has been delegating interest rate decisions to the Bank of England. That has largely worked (the lack of clarity about regulation highlighted by Northern Rock was typical of a Government initiative not being thought through in detail: it’s not related to the effectiveness of the Bank’s monetary policy). But setting interest rates really is a relatively short term econometric technical issue. It doesn’t set a good example for other matters.

That hospital closure? No, it’s the Primary Trust. That decision not to dual parts of the A1? No, that’s the regional highways agency. That new airport runway? Nothing to do with us.

But it is.

I wrote the above a few weeks ago. Before the SATS problems. Which have nothing to do with the minister responsible for education (who after all is a good friend of Gordon, and a potential party leader).

So a whole year of assessment for kids, the conclusion of a year’s efforts, turns out to be little better than random. And late. And the minister can duck responsibility because an independent (although Government established and appointed) agency hired a third party firm (with doubtful provenance) to do the work. With each of them taking costs and profits from taxpayers, with the amounts counting towards invstment in public services yet going nowhere near front line services.

The problem at the heart of Labour is delivery not presentation. They don’t know how to do anything. And perhaps even worse, they don’t care: they still care more about presentation.

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