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Why politicians secretly love the Environment Agency

10 February 2014

8:56 AM

10 February 2014

8:56 AM

‘I’ve kept my counsel up to now,’ said Chris Smith, loftily, when he appeared on the Today programme. Perhaps by the end of the interview, in which he managed to distance himself from previous policy pronouncements while defending his staff to the hilt, he wished he’d kept his counsel too. Those opening words suggested that the Environment Agency chief was about to unleash some terrible truth against the politicians taking aim at him, when in fact all he could tell listeners was that it was the Treasury’s fault… sort of.

‘I have to say I’ve kept my counsel up to now about issues like government rules about what the Environment Agency can spend and what it can’t spend. But when I hear someone criticising the expertise and the professionalism of my staff in the Environment Agency who know more about flood risk management – 100 times more about flood management than any politician ever does, I’m afraid I’m not going to sit idly by.

‘The Environment Agency is bound down by the rules set by the Government so when someone says that they followed the advice of the Environment Agency, what they actually were doing were following the Treasury rules that were laid down that say how much we can spend and can’t spend on any individual flood scheme.’

As Smith explained in his Guardian article, the Treasury laid down funding rules for the EA. So in Smith’s mind, it’s the Treasury’s fault. Eric Pickles thinks it’s Chris Smith’s fault. But regardless of who is right about which group of people mucked this up, it is right, really, that politicians should get the blame for this. The Environment Agency is quite a blessing, in many ways, if you’re a minister: like many quangos it’s a catchall not-me-guv for politicians who nobly ‘depoliticise’ decisions by farming them out to ‘independent’ bodies which also serve as tremendously useful and unaccountable scapegoats when the chips are down.

The whole notion of quangos as some force for good in the world of public policymaking shows how timid politicians have become. They argue that a quasi-autonomous body will have greater ‘expertise’ to make decisions, conveniently forgetting the expertise that already exists – or could exist – in their own departments. More frustratingly still, they argue that non-departmental bodies will ‘take the politics out’ of a decision, as though this is a good thing (although as Dennis Sewell points out in the latest issue of the Spectator, you can take the quango out of politics, but you can’t take the politics out of quangos). It certainly makes life easier for a politician who doesn’t have to bother making the case for a difficult decision.

But it also means that the people affected by that decision have no means of holding the decision-makers to account: quangos are not democratic bodies. Which makes them very convenient in circumstances such as these: Chris Smith doesn’t need to worry about a vengeful electorate. Hoorah for bodies like the Environment Agency, then, if you’re a politician. They save your bacon by taking the blame for decisions that your own democratically accountable group is too timid to own for itself.

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