Leo Mckinstry

How to waste £2.3 billion of public money

Spend it on bureaucracy in the regional development agencies

How to waste £2.3 billion of public money
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In these times of green awareness, waste management has become an increasingly fashionable issue for the public sector, always keen to find new excuses for bureaucratic intervention. The South East England Development Agency (Seeda), one of the many quangos created by Labour over the past decade, has certainly latched on to this cause in a big way. It has drawn up a ‘Waste Strategy’, set up a ‘Waste Market Development Group’, established a ‘Business Resource Efficiency and Waste Programme’, and convened ‘stakeholder workshops’ to promote ‘sustainable waste management’.

As if this frenzy were not enough, the agency also organised the grandly titled ‘Regional Waste Summit’ last year. Yet now we learn that Seeda has an even greater enthusiasm for another type of waste: the chronic, systematic waste of public money.

Documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by the terrier-like Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, Norman Baker — who deserves a knighthood for his ability to expose abuses in our public life — have revealed the epic scale of Seeda’s prodigality. Last year the agency’s chairman James Braithwaite spent £51,489 on taxis and ‘executive cars’, an outrageous sum that cannot be justified by any reference to his duties. A Seeda spokesman feebly claimed that the spendthrift Mr Braithwaite had to travel in subsidised luxury because ‘it enables him to make the best use of his working time’. This could hardly be less convincing. If Seeda really believed in the environmentalism it continually preaches to business, it would tell its chairman to use public transport rather than pumping additional carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

In any case, what are all these engagements for which Braithwaite has to be so expensively chauffeured? I looked through his official schedule for September and October, and could only find the predictable round of self-serving dinners and meetings, most of them with other well-rewarded public officials. So on 19 September he travelled to Wales for an Environment Agency Board Meeting. In the next week there were two whole days of ‘Seeda Board Interviews’. On 28 September he was at a ‘Regional Health Summit’. October saw meetings with East Sussex County Council, the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency Flood Defence Finance Committee, the ethnic minority housing association Ujima, the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership, the Environment Agency Industry Board Advisory Group, the Higher Education South East Conference, and the Thames Valley Economic Partnership. There was also a ‘briefing lunch for VIP visit to Libya’ on 22 October. If Braithwaite had stayed at home and watched TV throughout those two months, the British public would have been better off.

But Braithwaite’s extravagance is just part of a wider pattern at Seeda. The Agency spent £600,000 last year running ten overseas offices, with one representative in Stuttgart paid £89,000 for eight months part-time work. In March Seeda took 13 staff to a property trade fair on the French Riviera, spending £24,000 on participation at the event. And the other seven regional development agencies are just as bad, squandering a fortune through self-indulgence. One North, the agency for northern England, spent £965,000 on offices in China, the USA, Japan, Korea and Belgium, while Yorkshire Forward splashed out £20,000 on flying 15 staff to a film festival in Dubai.

The agencies’ approach highlights a scandalous contempt for the public purse, an attitude that is now all too rife in the public sector elite. The old concept of service has been replaced by one of exploitation. But we should hardly be surprised in the case of the eight RDAs, for they have always been pointless bodies, serving no genuine purpose in our economy. The brainchild of John Prescott (if that is not a contradiction in terms), they were created in 1998, supposedly to drive the regeneration of England’s regions. But over the past nine years they have proved to be nothing more than costly talking shops. Their vast annual budget of £2.3 billion is largely spent on marketing, seminars, internal job creation, monitoring, conferences, action plans, and all the other exercises so cherished by our modern state officialdom.

A glimpse into this bureaucratic world is provided by a glance at the stream of documents issued by Seeda. These reports are meant to show the importance of the agency’s work, but they actually only succeed in exposing the mind-boggling amount of red tape it produces. The minutes of the last Seeda Board meeting on 25 October cover such items as ‘the Culture and Sport Toolkit for Local Area Agreements’, the ‘Slough Skills Strategy Summit’, sponsorship of the ‘European Business and Innovation Centres Network Annual Congress’ and support for the ‘South East Women’s Ambassadors Network and Women’s Enterprise Advocates programme’. Inevitably, the state’s obsession with political correctness rears its head, with Seeda setting up ‘a cross-agency group of Diversity Champions’, forming a ‘Diversity and Equality Managers’ Group’, organising a ‘Diversity Means Business’ project and pushing through a ‘Social Inclusion Partnership South East Black and Minority Ethnic Action Group’.

This kind of bureaucracy is now out of control. Even Seeda’s own officers admit that there is ‘a proliferation of regional partnerships and strategies and activity plans’ which means that there is a need ‘to simplify and avoid overlap and make matters clearer to the customer’. But there is no sign that this will happen. In the true style of today’s penpushers, Seeda has decided that the way forward is through yet another action plan for the region. Meanwhile, its burden on the taxpayer continues. In the last year, Seeda’s expenditure has risen by £14 million to £195 million, while the size of its paper-shuffling workforce has increased from 342 employees to 370. And it is the same story elsewhere. At Yorkshire Forward, the number of staff has gone up from 352 to 428. Yet precious few of them are directly involved in business. So there are 74 in the Finance Directorate, 122 in the Environment Network, 40 in the Economic Inclusion Team and just 107 in the Business Directorate.

That goes to the heart of the problem. The RDAs are just another bloated arm of the useless state machine, not an engine for business growth. Too many of their officials know little about the commercial world. Pam Alexander, for instance, the £195,000-a-year chief executive of Seeda, has spent her career in the public sector. Far from being innovative, the RDAs are a throwback to the old days of economic planning under Harold Wilson, when the belief prevailed that government could create wealth. That dogma was supposed to have died in the economic gloom of the 1970s, yet RDA chiefs have revived it. But if they are really as brilliant as they claim in the endless glossy brochures, why is Britain facing such a disastrous skills crisis? Why is unemployment so stubbornly high? Why is our public infrastructure creaking so badly? As a downturn now grips our economy, the RDAs have proved their only skill lies in wasting our money.