Hart of the Matter
When I first heard of quangos I thought they were animals. When I was a kid, I used to be fascinated by rare and exotic animals and, like many others, had an alphabet of creatures, Q always being a difficult letter.
There were quails, of course, if you could include birds, quamash if you could include flowers, quince if you could include trees, or quahog if you could include shellfish, but as far as animals were concerned there was only a quagga, which is extinct, a quadruped which is a type of animal but not a species, or a quokka, which people never believed was a real word.
With delight I discovered the quango in the jungles of equatorial Africa, a cross between a giraffe and a dingo.
Sadly, it turned out to mean a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation, which is a lot more boring, but it reproduced at a rate that would not shame a rabbit.
The new Coalition Government, however, is determined to make the quango an endangered species, and few would argue with them - apart from the thousands of people who are employed by one.
In many ways I, too, am glad to see the back of many of them – expensive organisations made up of people who know the right people and employing a lot of other people who seem to have no significant function.
That is, until you see the axe swung over one whose activities you are aware of.
At the recent opening of the new Menta premises in Haverhill, it was curious to hear thanks expressed to EEDA, an organisation which is doomed to closure.
In case you are unaware, Menta is the enterprise agency which operates units and offices in Haverhill to help people start up new businesses. They used to be called incubator units, which is not a bad metaphor because they protect the fledgling business from the rigours of the harsh commercial world for just long enough to get them started.
Menta has been doing quite a lot of work to get people starting up new businesses in Haverhill recently, thanks to an injection of £100,000 for a special project. What is really satisfying about that is that it is European money.
We don’t see anywhere near enough European money in Haverhill, as far as I am aware, or in East Anglia in general. A lot of it is accessed for regeneration projects, and the east of England is reckoned to be affluent enough not to need any of that sort of thing.
In the midlands and the north there are whole industries which have been closed down and communities put under threat over the past 25-30 years, so it is reckoned that they need regeneration.
The trouble is that although most of the south and east is reasonably affluent, there are pockets of deprivation. Some is still due to the reduction of traditional industries – fishing in Yarmouth and Lowestoft, for instance.
But there are other reasons, and ten years ago, Haverhill fulfilled plenty of those. It has come on in leaps and bounds since, but there is still a case for saying that it is a town in particular need of investment of the kind which is generally termed ‘pump-priming’.
For instance, it is a town which has been created out of someone else’s social engineering experiment 50 years ago. One of the results of that is that it has an unusually high percentage of younger people. The figure that was bandied about ten years ago was that 47 per cent of the population was under 25. I don’t know if that is still true, but it remains high.
So when the Menta opening event saw people thanking an organisation called EEDA, it was disappointing to realise that it will not be continuing for too long.
EEDA is the East of England Development Agency, and you may think that employing 245 people at its headquarters in Cambridge is reason enough for the Government to think it wastes public money. It does seem a lot of people.
But it is a channel by which money comes into Haverhill and, maybe more importantly, by which Haverhill is helped in its quest to attract investors. Agencies like EEDA work behind the scenes and what they do is not always directly obvious.
So if this quango is to be shot by Cameron and Clegg for their wall of safari souvenirs, one can only hope it will be replaced by something equally effective.
Initial indications are that its work will be taken over by some kind of Local Employment Partnership. Partnerships are the ‘in’ thing at the moment, because they don’t employ people and they cost the public purse relatively little.
However, in practice, they often do not attract the quality of people required, because they are dependent on businesses delegating representatives to attend. Often they meet during the day because that is a convenient time for local authority and other agency representatives to be there.
Business people are less able to leave their desks for several hours for a meeting which contributes nothing to their bottom line.
We can only hope that a better adapted species will fill the ecological hole left by each quango.