Monday, 24 June 2013

Bonfire of the Quango's

You might remember that when the Con-a-Lib coalition came to power. There was a sort of knee jerk reaction by the government to save money to offset the financial meltdown in the banking industry. It was characterised by what became known as the 'Bonfire of the Quango's' basically the treasury took a pragmatic view and did a cost-benefit analysis of the quality of service provided by the large list of quangos.

In the UK, a QUANGO (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) is an organisation to which the government has devolved certain powers. This term covered most executive agencies.

If a quango was seen to be cost effective and doing a good job. Then its demise was put on hold for the foreseeable future. There were even management buyouts. If it was considered to be a poor performing quango then it was ripe for what could have been described as the 'Son of Beeching' government axe. The British Waterways Board was considered by the government to be one such bit of dead quango land wood.  But why would and should the government consider the BWB Quango in such a poor regard?

The problem was that the metaphoric cat was now well and truly out of the bag. Complaints about the excesses of the management were rife. Often to be found on the more well read public forums such as Narrowboat World, Facebook, Twitter and various other forums. The towpath telegraph has always had an uncanny way of conveying bad news at rapid speed. While Hansard is recognised as the de facto reading for MP's. BWB had regular less than flattering appearances in Private Eye which is after all, the de facto reading for the mandarins and ministers with an eye on their future.

The government was well aware of the ill conceived British Waterways investment in a pub partnership that ultimately was destined to go into administration. Investing in pubs at a time when they were closing everywhere else in the UK was more than a small cock-up. After all costing the public purse a very cool £22 million was not small change. But there were also tiny instances of poor thinking. Take the installation of totally unnecessary metal bollards at narrow locks, that proved to be extremely dangerous. So at a cost of over £1,000 per lock to install the metal bollards. It then required a further £750 a lock to be spent to remove them. But this was very small fry to the later schemes of spending millions to purchase marinas that were described almost 'tongue in cheek' As providing 'money for essential maintenance' in the future. Promises and investments that have proved to be another stinging slap in the face.  However the 'Pièce de résistance' being the writing-off of £33 millions on the Gloucester precinct investment. 

But it does not end there, I think the one to watch for the future will be the well regarded moorings auction system. With the best will in the world jacking up even further the price on moorings that can't currently be let, is a further fiasco in the making. Not only that, but popular estimates currently cluster around the 900 million mark of our money that will be needed to bring the inland waterways back into an acceptable state. 

However, because of its statutory duties BWB would not have been so easy to just throw into the ever growing conflagration. The easy option would have been to draw it back into government as part of DEFRA. However, no minister in their right mind was going to accept this as a credible option. Profligate spending and poor performance that was richly rewarded to themselves by the management would have done little to endear the board to the minister.

DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is the governments ministerial led department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the United Kingdom.

The way out was seen to be to convert British Waterways into a charity. This also provided a cheap option to rid the government of this niggling thorn in its side. I regard it as a stroke of genius for which the Con-a-Lib government is to be noted for. Was to give the charity certain physical assets with which to make its way into a bright new future. A sort of dowry of the tawdry of sorts. 

As an alternative BW could have been handed over to the EA (Environment Agency) The problem was that no one wanted that poison chalice. A chalice that was an inland waterway that was crumbling apart. An inland waterway that had been under funded for essential maintenance for decades. The money 'saved' for shoddy investments. In an attempt to 'encourage' the EA into accepting BWB the government threatened to subsume the EA into the new charity at a later date. The EA called the governments bluff and it remains to be seen if the threat will ever be fulfilled.

Searching around for the leadership required to convert a quango into a charitable trust. The government discovered that the old board of British Waterways was by some 'miracle' found to be just the group to lead the inland waterways into a new era. Some might also call this discovery a form of sweet revenge by the mandarins and DEFRA.

Building upon their previous experience the transition team came up with a new plan. This was to continue with the under funding of the essential maintenance. No surprise there then. One requirement was to bring together a team of people to act as expendable fall guys and gals for the future. One problem has been that the more astute who were at first drawn in by the prospect. Have now spotted the humongous elephant in the room and headed off to address workable challenges elsewhere.

Now comes the slow treacle like exodus of the transitional management. All on their way to spend more time with their not inconsiderate salary, pensions and bonus.  You will have read about this, though the story might well have a different spin put upon it.


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