Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tough Choices Are Tough

As regular readers will know, we have long called for the abolition of the £2.3bn pa Regional Development Agencies (eg see here). We have never seen any convincing evidence to suggest they have been successful in developing our struggling regional economies, and they have burned shedloads of taxpayers' money.

So we were delighted when others such as St Vince joined the call. Most of all, we were delighted when our fingers-crossed-next-government joined in. Back in 2008, a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet said:

"RDAs are unaccountable and unelected and they will be abolished – there is no doubt about that."
What could be clearer? Hurrah!

Unfortunately, since 2008 they have been nobbled by the corporatist weasels. All they now say is:
"...we also want to ensure Britain is one of the most competitive economies in which to do business in the future by... reforming the Regional Development Agencies to create a vibrant, business-focused force that is more responsive to local needs."
Which is the kind of thing we've heard from the industrial policy lobby since well before DeLorean cars.

As it happens, we have just been contacted by Mr A Nonymous, who draws attention to one of the latest RDA money incinerations:

"Cornwall-based Trewithen Dairy is set to increase its production by 80 per cent from 25m litres of milk a year to 44m, with the aid of a £5.7m grant received from the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE).

RDPE is jointly funded by the EU and Defra, and RDPE program specifically for this region are managed by the South West Regional Development Agency. Business support from RDPE is provided through the government's Solutions for Business services."
BOM's correspondent writes:
"Essentially what they are saying is that the South West Regional Development agency is directly paying a small Dairy company to take on some of the Farmers who don't have a Milk Processor to sell to, following the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain last summer. Furthermore, it seems the Dairy is going to be able to use taxpayers cash to subsidise the price they are paying per litre for milk putting it at, possibly an unfair advantage against other local, or indeed national Dairy companies."
He goes on to wonder why the RDA is doing this right at this moment? Could it possibly be to highlight for Tory leaning voters in the South West marginals just how much they'd lose if the SW RDA got abolished? Or to put it another way, is that why the Tories have backtracked so far on their RDA abolition pledge? No, surely we shouldn't be that cynical.

Although it does make you think.

And what it makes you think is that if you're going to promise tough choices, you have to be tough enough not only to make them, but also stick to them.

Because - and stop me if you've heard this before - experience shows it's A LOT easier for governments to spend money than it is for them to stop spending it.

Take Australia. It isn't so long ago that Oz was being held up as an example of a country where the government spent money far more carefully than ours. Under John Howard, the Oz government seemed to be pursuing policies which put taxpayer interests first, especially in the area of welfare benefits. And in surveys of public sector efficiency, Oz significantly outscored us.

But according to BOM's man down under (Ben W), in a few short years under Blair clone Kevvy Rudd (and even under late vintage Howard), whacky spending has become the expensive norm. Ben sends us a jaw-dropping account from someone who briefly worked on the inside as a ministerial speech writer:
"Despite my short length of service, I was included in the spending free-for-all. I later found myself in a plush Sydney harbourside hotel with hundreds of dollars in unnecessary travel allowance - everything, including meals, flights and accommodation, was covered by the department...
...We were not the only ones wasting money. Associated with our section were those boffins who create public health campaigns, the ones that appear on television with increasing regularity: nights out turning into nightmares, measure your fat stomach, wash your hands - that kind of thing.
I was surprised to discover the minds behind these campaigns were not health professionals. They had backgrounds and degrees in marketing, communications and advertising, not medicine. Under their watch, the government became the No.1 spender on free-to-air television.
Next to those folks sat the print division. They produced hats, T-shirts, mugs and golf balls with little logos and slogans designed to make us all healthier. A huge collection of the stuff was proudly displayed in a dedicated glass cabinet in the middle of their section."
No, I can't go on - you really must read it for yourself.

And don't feel tempted to laugh at the unfortunate Aussies- our RDAs, our quangocracy, and our once serious offices of state, are all doing the same and much worse. And they're doing it with our money.

Cam and George just have to get a grip. If they can't even stick to their guns on abolishing the RDAs, they will find it impossible to get anywhere near the £100bn spending cuts we're going to need.

*Footnote As a Devon lad, Tyler naturally has a coronary-inducing love of clotted cream. Unfortunately all you can buy in Sainsburys is Cornish clotted cream, which isn't anything like the real thing. Not that it matters much any more since Mrs T banned the Great Artery Clogger (except for one measily spoonful with the lo-cal Xmas pud).

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