Dial 999 for the PM

7 Mar 14
Tony Travers

As politicians wade into flood-hit areas, and David Cameron takes personal charge of the rescue effort, where does this leave arm’s-length agencies?

The flooding of southern England has led to a search for villains. Commentators who have never before written about water management have become instant experts on dredging and, in particular, the environmental needs of the Somerset Levels and/or the quality of rail infrastructure at Dawlish.

Here, it is probably wiser to consider the administrative implications of the full-throttle media and political attack on the Environment Agency and its chair, Lord Smith. The difficulties faced by flooded communities have focused attention on how Britain prepares for occasional, unpredictable weather events. Perceived weaknesses in institutional capacity to cope with a month of heavy rain (and previously drought) have led to proposals for direct ministerial control over such matters.

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, has suggested that the Environment Agency ‘ought to be abolished, and be brought back under government control’. The logic of Nelson’s argument is that when things get bad, people expect the prime minister personally to take control and govern directly. In such an arrangement there is no room for arm’s-length agencies. Many members of the public would doubtless agree.

It was similar logic that led to the abolition of the UK Border Agency and the transfer of its agency functions to the Home Office. Theresa May, in the Commons last year, stated that the entities replacing UKBA ‘will not have agency status and will sit in the Home Office, reporting to ministers’. The new arrangement would be overseen by the Home Office permanent secretary. May was clear: the government’s immigration policy was so important that it needed to be run from desks close to her office.

Something analogous happened to rail franchising. The Strategic Rail Authority handled rail franchising from 2001 to 2006, before the government took direct control. The infamous West Coast mainline franchise was mishandled by the Department for Transport and when this occurred there was no doubt the buck stopped in Whitehall.

The idea of ‘quasi autonomous’ bodies or non-ministerial departments managing services, which was the purpose of the ‘Next Steps’ agencies created in the 1980s, derived from a desire to create institutions that could manage the purely operational aspects of public services. The Whitehall core would be left to set policy. This neat division had the added attraction from the point of view of ministers that it kept them away from responsibility for service breakdowns and failures.

However, the centralised nature of the British state is creating unstoppable pressure for direct ministerial control of any politically-salient service. Separation of policy from delivery doesn’t make much sense when people see water coming through their floorboards: they simply blame the government. As do the Opposition, media and wider public opinion.

Once any kind of emergency or service breakdown emerges in England, there is now immediate pressure for the prime minister to take control. Cobra (the emergency committee for managing logistics) will be convened and, if things are really bad, the army called in. Promises of ‘money is no object’ government largesse are duly made, however rashly. This is the command-and-control model envisaged for the NHS when Aneurin Bevan memorably stated that if a bedpan were dropped in a Tredegar hospital corridor, the reverberations should echo in Whitehall.

In a country where, in effect, 100% of taxation is determined centrally and all resource allocation to every service and unit of government is made from London, it is small wonder the floods have led to calls for direct ministerial control over ditches, dredging and rail embankments. Political leaders will need to buy clothing appropriate for every emergency. The prime minister is responsible for everything everywhere.

Tony Travers is director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics

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