28 September 2013

How Public is Public Money?

Of the many deceitful slogans which the Conservatives used when they came to power the 'bonfire of the quangos' has perhaps had the least justification in practice. A whole range of boards and partnerships are creeping back into existence, responsible for public money, but with no clear sense of how the public view will be represented or how they will be accountable to the public.

My own particular source of concern is the Local Enterprise Partnership. These were first mooted some 18 months ago, at which point they had no clearly defined powers and there was apparently no funding to accompany the establishment of such bodies. I remember thinking how unlikely it was that anybody would take on the challenge of local economic regeneration without any financial support. How foolish I was, and how cunning others were, because over time large amounts of public money have been promised to these bodies that those with foresight or perhaps inside information made their own.

The GLEPs are supposed to represent the country's 'natural economic areas', although there is no theoretical consideration about how such economic areas might be defined. The work that the LEPs might undertake is limited by the narrow and pro-growth conceptualisation of the problem we face according to the government rubric:

'Our economy is currently too dependent on a narrow range of industry sectors. We need an economy driven by private sector growth, with business opportunities evenly balanced across the country and between industries. We also need to reduce burdens for businesses, particularly in terms of lower tax levels, planning and other administrative burdens.'

While this is the rhetoric, the reality is that those who have always had their snouts in the trough of government subsidy to business have created structures to funnel public money in their direction, resulting in a map of meaningless and unplanned areas on the government website.

In Gloucestershire our LEP is called G1st LEP, G1st being an unsuccessful regional development company that has already received large amounts of money from the county but with no clear evidence of its having created jobs or brought prosperity. But it cleverly included the letters LEP in its name, built a new website, and was accepted by the Business Secretary as being the regeneration body for the whole of our county. At this stage, remember, there was no indication that money was coming and so it had no serious competitors.

But money has certainly followed and with increasing speed since the publication of the Heseltine report No Stone Unturned--In Pursuit of Growth, a report which has only proved that under those stones lurk a regiment of people who have made a career of parroting the same pro-growth, pro-business catechism without the need for a track-record of success. All money to be invested in regeneration by central government, or £2 billion of it in 2015-16, will now be funneled through these bodies. Yet there has been no opportunity for the public to become involved in discussions about how they might like to see regeneration happen, whether economic growth is in fact beneficial for local communities, whether we might focus on resilience and sustainability instead, or whether bioregions might be better natural economic areas than the curious regions illustrated in the map.

In Stroud we are particularly angry that money which was originally our money is now to be sent to the LEP, to be controlled by people with no democratic authority over this money, and we have to make a case to have some of it spent in our area. When the government cut our central funding grant they told us that in future we would receive money through a New Homes Bonus, already requiring us to build new houses in order to be properly funded. But now 40% of this New Homes Bonus will go to the LEP directly and we will not see any of it back unless we subscribe to the sort of view of economic development that this unaccountable body dictates. There is also talk of funding for further education institutions similarly passing through the LEP before being received by them.

Martin Whiteside, one of our district councillors here in Stroud, has referred to the birth of the GLEP as the immaculate reconception of the quango and, while we feel the parentage of our county body is particularly unclear, the accountability of these bodies that will use public money according to their own political priorities and without proper accountability should be questioned everywhere that LEPs lurk.


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