Mark Wallace is Campaign Director of The TaxPayers' Alliance.
Local government can be a complex place. Not only are there over 400 different councils, in a variety of shapes, formats and sizes, there are the regional and local development quangos established by central government. On top of all that, there are the quangos that councils themselves have set up, and the quangos established by other quangos. In can be a confusing picture, so much so that it seems some councils can become confused by their own activities.
One example of that arose last week in Newcastle upon Tyne. Back in 2000, Newcastle City Council set up a quango called the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, a body intended to encourage tourism to the local area through artistic and cultural activities.
As with so many publicly funded arts bodies, many of NGI’s activities have been somewhat dubious, but recently they reached the apex of foolishness with a blunder that raises questions not just about the competence of this unaccountable body, but also about the degree to which the City Council are in any way on top of their game.
The proposal in question concerned Grey’s Monument, which is for many the central historic feature of Newcastle Upon Tyne. I had the good fortune to grow up on Tyneside, but for those of you who don’t know the city I’ll give a quick explanation of what the Monument is.
Erected in 1838 to the memory of Earl Grey, who passed the Great Reform Act six years earlier, the monument is a Grade I listed structure following the model of Nelson’s Column (indeed the statue is by the same sculptor). It stands at the top of Grey Street, which was voted the most beautiful street in Britain by Radio 4 listeners in 2002, and which narrowly escaped demolition in the 1960s and 70s when the trend was for concrete monstrosities rather than sandstone neoclassical beauties.
Faced with such a notable historic feature, the philistines of NGI decided to modernise it with a project called “Hotel Monument”. This would involve encasing it in scaffolding and concrete, and boarding the statue itself up to become the main feature of a hotel room, which could be rented out to tourists. An architect’s impression of what the finished eyesore would look like can be found here. It seems that the 21st century quangocrats were keen to finish off what the modernist wrecking balls of the 1960s had started.
Happily, Newcastle City Council’s planning committee saw sense and threw the plans out, rightly calling them “an act of vandalism”. NGI were annoyed, announcing to general shock that they had already spent £200,000 on the plan. They hadn’t simply incurred design or artist costs, in fact they had gone ahead and built the whole structure. Indeed, if any ConservativeHome readers have space in their garden, and a need for a faux water tower in the style of Moon Base Alpha, the scaffolding is currently on sale at the County Durham steel firm who won the contract.
No-one expects common sense out of arts quangos, but it is still shocking that NGI, who are supposed to at least talk to the council occasionally, could spend so much taxpayers’ money on something that councillors themselves overwhelmingly opposed before securing firm planning permission. Even more shocking, though, is the revelation that the council contributed £35,000 to the scheme before their own planning committee rejected it. What were they thinking?