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Would we miss the Ministry of Housing etc. if it left us?

Summary:
How many men does it take to change a loo roll? Women believe the answer to be “zero” because it has never happened.  If you got that right, how many people does it take to divide HM Treasury’s funding, once a year, between 354 local authorities and 89 police, fire and other local bodies? 4,067. In 2017/8 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) had 2,021 HQ staff, a 25% increase in the year, with another 2,046 in its agencies and “designated bodies”. Staff costs were up 22% overall. Police and fire services are not part of MHCLG responsibilities.MHCLG is Whitehall’s supreme example of Parkinson’s Law.  The 2018/9 accounts list seven strategic objectives, the first five of which are matters for local government, for example: “We are taking steps to help people now

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How many men does it take to change a loo roll? Women believe the answer to be “zero” because it has never happened.  If you got that right, how many people does it take to divide HM Treasury’s funding, once a year, between 354 local authorities and 89 police, fire and other local bodies? 4,067. In 2017/8 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) had 2,021 HQ staff, a 25% increase in the year, with another 2,046 in its agencies and “designated bodies”. Staff costs were up 22% overall. Police and fire services are not part of MHCLG responsibilities.

MHCLG is Whitehall’s supreme example of Parkinson’s Law.  The 2018/9 accounts list seven strategic objectives, the first five of which are matters for local government, for example: “We are taking steps to help people now to find the right home.”  Well of course, if one wanted a new home in Newcastle, one would head for MHCLG’s palatial offices in Westminster. Grenfell Tower should have been sorted by now by the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council but four days after the fire on the 14th June 2017, the MHCLG took over which probably explains why, three years later, so much is still unresolved. The sixth item is “providing assurance and stability to our sectors to help them to prepare for EU Exit”.  Clearly local government could not survive Brexit without that. The last is ensuring MHCLG is “a great place to work”. Of course it is; spending other people’s money is fun.

“We have continued to build more homes year on year” (p.8). Nonsense, the MHCLG has not built a single home. “We helped councils in England to prepare for EU Exit by providing over £58 million of funding” (p.9). That reminds me of winning the London Marathon by sponsoring the runner who came first.

Annex A lists whimsical, or so they seem, gifts to charities totalling £16.5M. Almost all are matters for local authorities, parks for example, and quite a few are outside the remit of MHCLG. That is symptomatic of the general problem. In 2018/9, MHCLG spent (net) £38.3bn., £26.6bn. going to local councils, £20.7bn. being the main annual grants and the other £5.9bn. being divided into a dozen or so specific grants which must occupy far too much of the time of hard-pressed council financial officers making applications. A further £11.7bn. was spent on the department’s pet projects.  If the funding all went to local councils as single annual grants, the money would have been better spent.

In 2018/9 the Planning Inspectorate had 650 staff (up 7%) at a cost of £54M gross or £38M after deducting the income from fees. The Inspectorate is mostly known for planning appeals; more than 40% of public inquiries and hearings reverse the local decisions. These appeals provide no fee income but form the majority of the net cost. The two main performance targets and outcomes for planning appeals in the year were (p.131):

  • To determine 80% of written representations in 14 weeks of the start date: 58.8%

  • To determine 80% of householder appeals in 8 weeks of the start date: 75.9%

 

A Policy Exchange report earlier this year argued that planning should be primarily a matter for local authorities with politicians setting the rules but thereafter butting out. Provided local planning officers follow those rules, there should be no further political involvement.  The Planning Inspectorate would only verify that planning officers comply with their own local rules. Presumably there should also be some monitoring of their compliance with national policies. A senior councillor at one London borough told me that, for ideological reasons, the Greater London Authority did all it could to frustrate local developments that were acceptable in all other respects.  If that is the case, it is a problem for Whitehall to sort out, not the Planning Inspectorate.

National infrastructure planning should be decided at national level but it is far from obvious why officials in Bristol, who may not even visit the site, should be entitled to override local communities and planners at all, never mind more than 40% of the time.  In short, national infrastructure projects, which are few and far between, should be decided by ad hoc committees and local planning left to locals, as suggested above.  This would save not just the £38M net cost of the Inspectorate but also the local costs of dealing with appeals.

“Ministers are preparing for a major overhaul of the planning system in England to speed up approvals for new developments as part of the government’s attempts to kick-start the economy hit hard by the coronavirus crisis.” Replacing the Inspectorate with democratically agreed local planning rules would help such liberalisation provided a small unit within the Cabinet Office checks the guidelines against national policies and removes arbitrary blockages.

The QEII Conference Centre in Westminster makes steady profits (£3.4M in 2018/9) and should be privatised. The Ebbsfleet Development Corporation has not published an annual report for two years but should anyway be the responsibility of one or both of the two local councils: Gravesend and Kent. Any of the other eight quangos linked to MHCLG, and worth preserving, could easily be found homes in other departments.

The department overall competes with local government in deciding how their money should be spent and cutting their funds, rather than strengthening, developing and promoting them as it should. Instead it spends each year devising new ways to spend our money.  They presume that they know better than local government what the locals really need. Since local government is closer to the people who provide the money than the bureaucrats in SW1, it is much more likely that the reverse is the case.  Luckily, the solution is simple: abolish MHCLG and assemble a small team in HM Treasury to divide the total amount up between the local authorities. Local authorities should submit their annual funding requests as formal plans and will quickly learn that those failing to follow national policies may find their grants diminished.

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Tim Ambler
Tim Ambler (born 1937) is a British organizational theorist, author and academic on the field of Marketing effectiveness. Ambler featured on Marketing's list of the 100 most powerful figures in the industry. He is cited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the top 50 marketing experts in the world

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