The Adonis alternative

18 Jun 09
MATTHEW PARRIS | Long-term projects can grind to a halt when a government runs out of steam. A new approach, pioneered by the transport secretary, might be the way forward

Long-term projects can grind to a halt when a government runs out of steam. A new approach, pioneered by the transport secretary, might be the way forward

This week the shadow home secretary wrote to five companies bidding to supply ID cards. Chris Grayling’s message was blunt. Should it be elected in the year ahead, an incoming Conservative government would cancel the whole project.

There were predictable expressions of outrage. How dare party politicians foul up the efficient working of the contractual process? How can public services be provided effectively if vulgar democracy keeps poking its nose in and mucking about with plans?

But that’s what democracy means. Far from being fickle, the Tories were acting in a precautionary way. There exist long-term public sector projects about which democrats genuinely disagree; if this doubt interferes with their execution, so be it. The extra costs injected into the contractual process will just have to be borne.

But many long-term projects are not of this kind. For them, the uncertainties introduced by the mere fact that governments cannot bind successors – even though there is a general expectation of continuity – can be fatal.

The current political climate means that nothing politically bold that cannot be completed by next spring seems worth thinking about. We enter a fallow year where administrative vision seems pointless, and ideas for what government might do in the next Parliament academic.

So spare a thought, as one political dynasty limps towards its likely replacement by another, for the hostages: those blameless policy projects whose future is probably secure but not guaranteed, and whose timescale is too long to fit neatly within the boundaries of one Parliament. When the party-political battle commences they stand as innocent bystanders on the sidelines.

Here’s a very current example. If, as seems to be the case, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are all keen on a national ‘spinal’ high-speed rail line from London to the North, why should the interposition of a general election next year delay the early legislative and planning preparations for the first leg, from London to Birmingham?

Another example: if the next government proceeds with a new generation of nuclear power stations, wouldn’t it make sense for both major parties to coordinate ideas and plans – and, most importantly, public statements – around an agreed path, dependent (of course) upon the final go-ahead?

Modern grands projets in technology and construction have very long lead times indeed. When the Channel Tunnel Bill went through the Commons, Margaret Thatcher and her government seemed set to ‘go on and on’; had this looked less likely, the challenge of bringing it together might have been overwhelming.

Few seriously think Gordon Brown will go on and on. So must people with plans to push forward twiddle their thumbs for the next few months? A world beyond Westminster and Whitehall needs confidence in continuity and certainty of contract.

To protect great national projects whose lifetimes span more than one government, we need a better system. Ad hoc understandings are often reached (in defence procurement, for example) but these should not have to depend on interpretation, apparent agreement or a quiet word. Why can’t the new transport secretary preside over an official Whitehall committee, which would include Opposition spokespeople, convened to promote and plan the high-speed rail link?

In fact, the present incumbent, Lord Adonis, is a case in point. He’s recently returned from an extended personal tour of the national rail network.

His work, before that, on education, is respected by all parties. Here is the paradigm of a minister more interested in public administration than party politics. Why couldn’t such ministers assemble high-level cross-party planning groups, prepared to look beyond the chasm of a general election? Would it really be so shocking?

Of course there must be limits. ID cards are an example. But where uncertainties arise not from divisions in principle, but from the lack of any formalised and trusted framework to span political transition, we should set about building such a bridging structure.

We love naming our institutions and procedures after their progenitors. We already have Baker Days, Chatham House Rules and Belisha Beacons. So I propose we call my suggested suggestions Adonis Committees.

And, if the idea works, circumstances might even arise when departmental ministers could cross that bridge along with their plans. Public servants do so routinely, of course, but they cannot normally be champions of causes.

If great projects can survive changes of government, why not, occasionally, the ministers who champion them, too?

Matthew Parris is a former Conservative MP and a political commentator for The Times. He will be the guest lecturer at the CIPFA conference on June 23

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