In the first of a new series in which professionals reveal what they really think, a regeneration expert tells us just how much help agencies and quangos are …
How many regeneration agencies does it take to deliver a 15-year, multi-use, multi-tenure project with numerous public and private stakeholders? If the question sounds like a corny joke about a lightbulb, that’s because it invites a similarly flippant answer.
The government has sprinkled the country with agencies and quangos, all dedicated to the task of delivering physical, economic and social change. Their objectives are good, but the private sector has long complained that there are just too damn many of them. And how has government responded to those complaints? It has created more quangos and agencies. As a result, regeneration, an activity that requires long-lasting commitment, is dogged by uncertainty and hindered by the very bodies established to facilitate it.
A decade ago, private sector developers working in regeneration could have gone through their working life meeting no more than a handful of them. Now a whole range of three-letter acronyms (UDC, URC and so on) and a bunch of names permed from the words Forward, Together, Future and Vision have burrowed into the process. Quangos are so embedded in the UK culture that someone recently told me that the question: “What is a quango?” appears in the Life in the UK handbook for those taking the citizenship test. I hope they were joking, but I have a horrible suspicion they weren’t.
Try and develop anything bigger than a garden shed in the Thames Gateway and you won’t believe the number of quangos you have to consult. Outside the Gateway, things are little better. But it’s not only the quantity that is the problem, but the government’s incessant layering of agency upon agency, initiative upon initiative. There is the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. Then there are the regional development agencies, urban regeneration companies and urban development companies. The government has also created agencies specifically to aid local housing delivery, such as Milton Keynes Partnership. And on the way is the latest regeneration jack to spring out of the box: city development companies.
It is not only the quantity of quangos that’s the problem but the government’s incessant layering of agency upon agency, initiative upon initiative
Every couple of years the government launches a new round of quangos, each one presented as being a darn sight sexier than the last. Public money, and regeneration’s most skilled people, pour into this year’s model while yesterday’s resign themselves to a future strapped for cash and talent. The honeymoon always comes to an end. Some delivery agencies consider themselves lucky if they can last long enough to see the building of the projects they were set up to run.
None of this offers best value for the country. It also creates an uncertainty that undermines regeneration. Can inward investors, from pension funds backing a regeneration scheme to an IT company looking for an office, be certain that their money is going to a place that really is changing for the better? Can communities be sure that the CAD images and models depicting their home town in 20 years’ time will come true? It is significant that the organisation best known for its ability to deliver regeneration is not one of the agencies, but that most traditional deliverer of regeneration, Manchester council.
The government plans to give more power to councils to shape their area. It has also made much of its proposals to streamline quangos by combining some of the functions of its own communities department with English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. The consultation document on the merger describes the new combined agency as a
“one-stop delivery partner”. If only. The government would have to cull the quangos to deliver that. I suspect that’s too much to expect. But I’d like the government to hold back from creating any more quangos and give the ones we already have the timescale and the support that they need to do the job properly. The last thing the country needs is more Forwards, Togethers, Futures or Visions.