The Environment Agency Chairman Lord Smith was busy playing divide and rule in an article for the Daily Telegraph this morning.
Rules from successive governments give the highest priority to lives and homes; and I think most people would agree that this is the right approach.
But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?
Flood defences cost money; and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods – in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, or East Anglia? There’s no bottomless purse, and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect.
Thus the failings of his organisation, which have been so obvious in recent weeks, are shrugged off. All he can offer is that lazy assumption between his Quango’s performance is determined by its budget. So the more useless it is the more money it should be given. The notion that better flood defences could be provided within the existing budget is not even contemplated.
John Redwood offered an alternative perspective on his blog yesterday:
The Environment Agency last year received a £723m grant from the taxpayer and spent in total £1207m, the rest paid for by charges.
The staff costs of the Agency rose by £30m or 8 per cent compared to the previous year, reaching a total of £395.3 million. The Agency employed 12,252 people including temps and contractor personnel. Pension contributions cost £56 m , with a loss on the fund recognised that year in the accounts bringing the total pension cost to £197.4 million. The total cost of pensions was almost as high as the capital works, where they spent £219million during the year.
Within the capital works just £20.3 million was spent on improving or maintaining culverts and channels to ensure free flow of water. That is a mere 1.7 per cent of their total budget, or 3.4 per cent of their staff and pension costs. A further £69.6m was spent on improving embankments.
Mr Redwood adds that “has got the balance of its budget wrong.” It has failed to show the right priorities. I suppose Caroline Spelman’s decision to reappoint Lord Smith in 2011 can be used as an example of the Government being non-partisan regarding Quango appointment. That thought will be of little comfort to the flood victims.
So far as the EA and the trade union Prospect were concerned, the floods meant a chance to protest at job cuts. However Guido Fawkes reports:
Equivalent quangos in the rest of the world are much smaller, the Environment Agency for England alone has more staff than the Canadian, Danish, French, German, Swedish and Austrian equivalents, combined!
These other agencies have a very similar remit. A whistleblower blog concludes that the EA is overmanned by 9,000 and is allocated at least £0.5 billion too high a budget.
It’s record has not only been criticised regarding flooding. Lord Shrewsbury has denounced them for driving a waste disposal firm out of business – and thus increasing landfill.
Unlike local councils the EA do not have a transparency requirement to publish items of spending over £500.
No doubt the EA could continue in existence offering “more for less” a better service at reduced budget. Casting the net rather wider for it’s leadership than the charmed Islington New Labour Quangocracy would help.
However it would be better to abolish it altogether. In this week’s Spectator Charles Moore says that the EA decided to stop dredging as soon as it came into existence in 1996. He adds:
As the owner of a bit of ‘river frontage’ (normally a thin stream, but flooded as I write), I pay what is called a ‘scut’. (I believe the
word is the origin of the phrase ‘scot-free.’) This tax takes £8.48 a year from me for the Romney Marsh Internal Drainage Board. This
sensible body, which has local representation, now has only low-level responsibilities for small watercourses, because, in 1996, power tried to defy gravity and drained upwards to the EA. It is time for it to start trickling down once more.
The EA issues permits, holds consultations and issues reports. It does lots of work monitoring of fish stocks. But employing EA fish counters does not, in itself, help. If we are concerned about fishing stocks the answer is to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy. However flood prevention is certainly a valid role. The question is who is best placed to carry it out?
Localism of water management might not be entirely straightforward. Rivers do not fit conveniently within council boundaries. This may mean for some rivers county councils might be best placed for flood management. Or groups of district councils having a joint body – which as Mr Moore notes still happens on a modest scale with drainage boards.
There is scope for some “joined up government”. For instance what incentives could a council provide for residents who have concreted over their gardens to reverse the process? What money should councils allocate to tree planting which reduces the risk of flooding but also offers wider benefits?
The accountability might at times be untidy and imperfect. Yet it could hardly be worse that the dire performance we have seen from this bloated, monolithic Quango.