At Lib Dem conference last autumn, the Liberal Democrats couldn’t tell you often enough how they had saved the quango Natural England from the Tory axe. Both Nick Clegg and Ed Davey made a big deal out of it in their conference speeches, portraying the Tory desire to abolish it as evidence of their coalition partner’s anti-green agenda.
But at the inaugural meeting of the Cabinet Committee on flooding, Clegg admitted that Natural England had made the situation on the Somerset Levels worse than it needed to be. According to a civil service record of the meeting, he said that Natural England and the Environment Agency’s approach of letting nature take its course ‘was nonsensical for what were essentially artificial environments such as the Somerset levels.’
Clegg’s acceptance that philosophy underlying the work of Natural England and the Environment Agency is flawed should be welcomed. It means that there is now a coalition consensus on completely overhauling these disastrously-run bodies. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, is already searching for a proper countryperson who understands the need to manage the countryside, manage rivers and manage wildlife to succeed the current chairman, the former Labour Culture Secretary Chris Smith.
But the fact that the Liberal Democrats were so keen to boast of how they had saved Natural England shows that there remains a mistaken view that quangos are, per se, a good thing. It would be far better if government, which is at least accountable, did more and quangos did less.