Government by Business

The new Regional Development Agencies have no democratic legitimacy

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th November 1997.

The Welsh Development Agency is not exactly synonymous with fiscal rectitude and public control. In 1994, the Public Accounts Committee unearthed a mass grave of influence peddling and nepotism, and concluded that the WDA had presided over “a catalogue of serious and inexcusable breaches of expected standards of control and accountability.” The Scottish Development Agency hasn’t done a great deal better. In 1995, Labour demanded an inquiry into its failure to call in massive debts incurred by a property developer who also happened to be a major Tory fundraiser.

So it’s odd to hear Richard Caborn, the Planning Minister, singling these agencies out for praise. On Radio 4 last month, he described the Welsh Development Agency as a model he would like to reproduce. Last week he told the Town and Country Planning Association that these quangos “have been highly successful in their aim of improving employment opportunities and prospects”. This, as the Welsh know to their cost, is patently untrue. Wales remains the second poorest region in the United Kingdom. Its proportion of Gross Domestic Product per person has actually declined over the last ten years. But when you want to re-engineer the future, sometimes it’s tempting to alter the past.

At the end of this month, Richard Caborn’s department will publish its White Paper on Regional Development Agencies. Their purpose is to oversee the economic development of all the English regions. Regional Development Agencies will take over some of the planning powers now possessed by local authorities. They will take control of the hundreds of millions of pounds provided by the Single Regeneration Budget and European structural funds.

No one would deny that strategic planning is necessary and that we have to answer the very pressing needs of some of the regions with bold initiatives. But whose strategy, whose plans will the Regional Development Agencies implement? In the ten pages of Mr Caborn’s speech about this massive redeployment of government business, he managed not to utter the words “democracy” or “accountability” once.

Members of the new agencies, just like the members of the Welsh Development Agency, will be appointed directly by the government. And business, says Caborn, should be in the driving seat. The British Chambers of Commerce is confident that business people will get most of the appointments, and deems that they should be paid at “commercial rates” in order to attract the best candidates. So to whom will these well-rewarded stewards be accountable?

Mr Caborn, when pressed, says they will answer to the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the government offices for the regions. These are the same or equivalent bodies to which the WDA was nominally accountable. They failed utterly to prevent it from making decisions which favoured its members and its members’ friends. As elected regional assemblies have been shelved for at least five or ten years, the new RDAs will be subject to no direct democratic oversight whatsoever. We know that this government, like its predecessor, is the government of big business. But this takes the process a step further: the RDAs will amount to government BY big business.

Development is surely the major determinant of the quality of our lives. It determines whether or not we have sufficient jobs, homes and transport, whether or not our neighbourhoods are safe, healthy and attractive, whether or not communities cohere or collapse. In the absence of public control, there is nothing we can do to ensure that development meets OUR needs, rather than just those of the developers.

Last week, Tony Blair used this page to call for “greater public participation in the decision-making process” and “a re-invigorated local government.” This putsch will surely achieve precisely the opposite. It is hard to see how the RDAs, as the government envisages them, can fail to reproduce the disasters precipitated by the Urban Development Corporations. In places such as Bristol and Teeside, the hated UDCs routed the local authorities, trampled public opinion and squandered tens of millions of pounds of public money.

Is this the regional devolution we’ve been promised, a devolution neither to local authorities nor to communities, but to a new tier of remote and unaccountable superquangos? Is this the New Britain Tony Blair has pledged? If it is, then the hopes and expectations in which the country exulted six months ago were false.