You’ve done great! ps. You’re fired

Good timing and luck are everything in politics. Unfortunately for the regional development agencies, they have not been overendowed with either. They long ago shattered a lorry load of mirrors.

Good timing and luck are everything in politics. Unfortunately for the regional development agencies, they have not been overendowed with either. They long ago shattered a lorry load of mirrors. Probably in the same vehicle that mounted a cracked pavement, then careered under a row of ladders before promptly running over a black cat.

But last week the National Audit Office gave the eight English regional development agencies outside London a glowing report.

In its Independent Supplementary Review of Regional Development Agencies, the NAO found that six of the eight RDAs it evaluated were rated strong or good against a basket of key indicators such as their development and delivery of programmes; how they implement improvements plans; and their work on performance management and evaluation. The remaining two agencies were rated good or adequate.

The reviews focus on the strengths of the processes and procedures in each agency and provides further evidence of their efficacy; undermining the Government’s case for their wholesale dismantling. Of course, in the topsy-turvy world of the Lib-Con coalition this is akin to saying ‘congratulations! We have found you innocent – but you’re still facing the firing squad in the morning’.

In a surreal response to its own strong performance rating, Advantage West Midlands (AWM) announced that all its staff are now being invited to apply for redundancy. A curious conflation of events: you do your job well and then get axed for your troubles.

But the need for regional economic support remains compelling. As AWM’s report finds:

“In the year to April 2010, the [West Midlands] region saw the sharpest decline in output and the fastest shedding of jobs of any of the English regions. The region now has the joint-highest unemployment rate in the UK.”

What a strange way of making policy. It simply does not matter what their performance is like or what endorsements they receive, or what real need they address; the Tories simply do not like RDAs. Period.

Gone is the New Labour credo of what matters is what works, to be replaced by what-matters-is-what-we-like. This neanderthal approach to public policy exposes Cameroon pragmatism for what it is: neo-Thatcherite ideological vindictiveness.

Even more extraordinary is that this pointless upheaval is taking place at a time when economic support in the regions is needed more than ever. This is the first time in the economic cycle where the value of having regional economic champions has been really tested. So just when businesses are frantically clawing their way through the remains of the downturn and need government on their side, they are instead left with RDAs as demoralised husks where the staff that remain are focused on buffing up their CVs.

Of course, many who will leave with severance pay-offs will probably get re-employed by the various Local Economic Partnerships which are set to replace RDAs in due course. So this is not only a ludicrously, mistimed piece of economic vandalism; but a potentially lousy deal for the taxpayer as well.

And for what? Just so Eric Pickles can leave his podgy pawprints on the shape of policy? In an interview with Total Politics magazine, he claims to want to allow local authorities to put in place whatever local political management arrangements they want. But at the regional level, it seems, ideology rules.

As a footnote, it is worth pointing out that significant reports of this nature usually merit a press release from the NAO. Despite being offered the opportunity to explain this unusual omission, the NAO declined Left Foot Forward’s invitation to clarify why no release had been written. We are left to ponder as to why our independent spending watchdog seems to want to bury good news that undermines the new government’s policy on RDAs.

The plot thickens. We will be returning to the matter in due course.

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