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Council survey supports quangos

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Conservative pledges to light a “bonfire of the quangos” have not found favour with the party’s grassroots, exclusive research for LGC has revealed.

A survey of councillors conducted by pollsters ComRes showed that while Tory members would like to see many quangos abolished, there are a number of bodies they would want retained by an incoming Conservative government.

A total of 462 councillors from all parties were surveyed, with much agreement between them on the favoured quangos. While those created by the Labour government were mostly disliked, many of their more long-standing counterparts found wide support.

Less than 20% of Tory councillors supported the retention of regional development agencies (RDAs), the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), Infrastructure Planning Commission, Tenant Services Authority, Equalities & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Partnerships UK.

However, more than half wanted the continuation of the Audit Commission, Highways Agency, JobCentre Plus, British Waterways, Health & Safety Executive, Sport England and the Environment Agency. Under-fire Ofsted and the Arts Council gained 49% support.

Prime minister Gordon Brown announced plans to cut more than 120 ‘arm’s-length bodies’ at the launch of the ‘Smarter Government’ initiative. And the preferences of Tory councillors were broadly mirrored by their counterparts in other parties.

The exceptions were the EHRC, which 43% of all councillors wanted retained, compared with just 13% of Conservatives, and RDAs, which were supported by 29% of all members but just 9% of Tories.

In a speech this summer, Conservative leader David Cameron claimed: “A fair-minded consideration of the evidence can only lead us to one conclusion: that we need to reduce the number of quangos in this country.”

But despite his rhetoric, he has given few hints of where he would wield the axe. He has said he will get rid of the Standards Board for England - but that was only the eighth most unpopular quango out of 18 among his party’s councillors (see table).

David Curry, the former Conservative local government minister who chaired the party’s localism policy review, said: “There are still some big decisions to be taken. If you are serious about decentralisation and localism, then you have to empower local government. The obvious place to start is RDAs.”

But Mr Curry said the Conservative party had “left the door slightly open” to some RDAs continuing, potentially performing in a subordinate role to local government.

And he said the HCA had rapidly expanded, making it difficult and expensive to axe and predicted an efficiency review rather than abolition.

The former minister described the EHRC as a “pretty grisly operation”, but said Mr Cameron, with his enthusiasm for equalities, would be wary of putting its future on the line. Mr Curry said skills and economic development were the most likely areas in which councils - or groups of councils - could assume responsibilities.

Calling for RDAs to be axed, James Morris, chief executive of the Right-leaning thinktank Localis, said: “In a world where austerity is a reality and a smarter, more local state is the future policy environment, many quangos will quite rightly have to justify their existence based on their value added.”

Paul Raynes, a Local Government Association programme director who has overseen research into the accountability and value offered by quangos, said he hoped

the debate would recognise their varying levels of performance on improving efficiency and becoming more locally responsive.

“That’s what we need to look at, rather than saying these are 743 bodies that cost money. Let’s get into a more satisfactory debate about how they deliver and how accountable they are,” he said.

Briefing:

Both the Conservatives and Labour will go into the election quoting anti-quango rhetoric. David Cameron has avoided using the “bonfire of quangos” cliché himself - if not his press officers - but the Tory leader has asked his shadow ministers to identify which quangos can be trimmed back.

Meanwhile, the government, which itself created so many, has proposed the merger or abolition of 120 quangos, with those remaining subjected to “greater oversight”, in an effort to save £500m annually.

The Total Place programme, auditing public expenditure in an area, is designed to eliminate duplication between bodies working locally. It is widely hoped by local government it will herald a simplification of funding streams, and this can only be achieved through local partners dealing with fewer quangos.

LGA toolkit on quangos

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