Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says that where a Quango can't be abolished at least it should be made accountable – sometimes directly elected.
When David Cameron spoke about quangos recently, there was rightly a lot of discussion about which bodies would be abolished. From a field of 1,162 unaccountable bodies, a decent number should be expected to go. But whilst outright abolition is certainly the correct course of action for wasteful and ineffective organisations like the Regional Development Agencies, we should not forget that there are other ways to reduce the size of the quango state.
One such way is to place existing quangos under democratic control. In some cases, that will mean moving their powers into the hands of local councils or government departments. In others, the organisations could continue to exist but be altered so as to be run by directly elected representatives of the people.
The example of this approach that is normally given (including by me) is the Police Authorities. Whilst that is a great example, and an area where I certainly hope direct elections would be introduced by a Cameron government, it is always good to see new proposals put forward, too. One came up this week: the National Park Authorities.
The idea came from (and I will say this in hushed tones so as not to provoke fury from ConHome readers) a Liberal Democrat MP.
It is clear that there is an ongoing battle in the heart of the Lib Dems. On one side is an almost Carswellite enthusiasm for direct democracy and localism. Against that, and currently prevailing, is what we might term the busybody tendency, which cannot bear the thought of letting the people choose to do “the wrong thing” on the environment, the EU, their own health or anything else.
This particular proposal is clearly from the localist side of that Jekyll and Hyde divide. Whilst it should be noted that it is perfectly possible for Lib Dem MPs to harbour instincts from both sides of their party’s split personality, the MP who put it forward – Tim Farron – also has the distinction of being one of those who resigned from Clegg’s front bench to vote for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, so he evidently has more than a bit of the democrat in his heart.
This week Mr Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, made the case for directly electing “around a third” of the members of the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA). He has a point – not only do the Park Authorities spend well over £30 million of taxpayers’ money, they have extensive planning powers just like a council. Indeed, in various ways they wield more power and influence than the local councils whose territory the parks fall within. Personally I would go further than a third, but it would be a big improvement.
At the moment, the National Park Authorities are barely accountable at all. Around half of the authority members are appointed members of the different local councils in the area, and the other half are an assortment appointed by the Secretary of State of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs.
Just as in policing, the unsatisfactory appointment of people who were not elected for their views on the policy at hand is used as an excuse for democracy. One can easily imagine a situation where the council
representatives on a Park Authority are not themselves representatives of the population living there under the Park’s rulings – particularly if the councillors elected by the Park’s residents are of a different party to the controlling majority on their council. There is a clear danger that cushy jobs for the boys deals could trump genuine accountability and leave the people essentially unrepresented on acrucial body.
Indeed, that danger can clearly be seen in the reluctance of local councils to support direct election to the Park Authorities. Just as with Police Authorities, existing council leaderships like to have the power of patronage at their disposal, ensuring that they can exert maximum control through a personal ally rather than having to deal with someone elected by voters for the job. Small wonder that the councils quoted in the North West Evening Mail and those questioned as part of a recent Government consultation are happy with the status quo. Similarly, the Chief Executive of the LDNPA is predictably opposed to any opportunity for locals to get too much of a right to look over his shoulder.
There are currently nine National Park Authorities, including the Broads Authority which runs on slightly different rules. Against the full total of 1,162 quangos they might seem insignificant but making them properly accountable to the people could make a great difference to everyone living in a National Park. Hopefully the Conservatives will take the idea up. That would just be a start – David Cameron promised a full review of the huge quango sector, and hopefully there will be many more examples like this to come.