Saturday, 15 October 2011

Why there's no point going nuts about spending £500,000 on bats

Tory peer Lord Marlesford (me neither) has been kicking up a fuss about the Highways Agency’s plans to spend £500,000 on building another five bridges designed to help bats cross roads in Norfolk. (The bats must be NFN, i.e. “Normal for Norfolk”). Apparently, five briges have already been build in the past three years.

The noble lord calls on the agency to show common sense at a time when some cancer patients are being denied drugs on the basis of cost. The agency claims that EU legislation means it has a legal duty to protect endangered species.

When it comes to our money being pissed away on ridiculous nonsense like this, I’m always slightly less upset than I should be. During the recent Labour Terror (1997-2010), the word “million” lost its shock value. When the country’s almost a million million pounds in debt, half a mill doesn’t even achieve chump change status – in national terms, it’s the equivalent of the sort of derisory tip you’d leave in a restaurant to signal contempt for the poor service you’d received. It just doesn’t seem to matter very much in the grand scheme of things: the government just scrapped a Labour NHS computer scheme that cost at least £12,000,000,000, without delivering any benefits whatsoever to sick people (but plenty to private technology companies and various members of the nomenklatura). Now, that’s worth getting het up about (as blogger DMossEsq does, frequently).

The thing that does matter is the ongoing cost of the enormous infrastructure that’s in place to widdle away our money on countless £500,000 projects. It’s the fact that there are people paid for by our taxes to worry about complying with EU directives about protecting wildlife – when this should evidently be the work of charities – that’s genuinely worrying. That’s where the bulk of the money goes – keeping people for whom we have absolutely no need employed at enormous expense.

Another reason I don’t blow a fuse over waste until it hits a billion is that I have absolutely no time for “either/or” arguments. You know the kind: if we hadn’t gone to war in Iraq, we could have built more hospitals or roads or schools. It’s a fallacy to suppose that Whitehall has the systems in place – or the skill, or the will - to take the £500,000 saved by not providing bridges to help flying creatures cross the road and spend it on worthier causes instead. (And, of course, there's an evern bigger question over whether the extra money would be spent wisely rather than being frittered away on yet more nomenklatura non-jobs.)

For a start, a lot of the money spent on nonsense projects comes from the EU: it started off as our money, but we send it to Europe to allow them to skim as much off the top as takes their fancy, and then they send us back a much smaller amount to be spent on a whole range of expensive phoney job creation programmes masquerading as worthy causes – in this case, bats.

Besides, the mechanisms simply aren’t in place in Whitehall to remove money from one pot (bat protection) to another (cancer drugs). It doesn’t work like that within state-funded institutions - I learned that during 18 years at the BBC - let alone between institutions. The public sector is all about grabbing as large a slice of the cake as you can and spending every penny – over-spending in fact – to make sure you get a larger slice next year. As one Deputy Director General at the BBC succinctly put it, “Nobody ever got fired at the BBC for overspending.” Sad, but true.

Mrs Thatcher used to get regularly lambasted by sniffy toffs and Eurocrats for being a rather dim housewife who treated the UK’s budget as if it she was dealing with the annual housekeeping (if we cut down on Angel Delight, we can afford more Hobnobs etc.). But of course, that’s exactly the right approach. If ministers and mandarins all behaved like old-fashioned, penny-pinching, conservative-minded housewives, a wasted £500,000 could ostensibly be spent on something more worthwhile – and it might actually be worth getting annoyed about.

1 comment:

  1. Almost anything can set me off these days. I'm obviously going batty. In this case, it was your mention of Norfolk. It caused me immediately to submit this entry to the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year 2011 awards:

    The entitlement of the ancien régime at the head of the NHS must prevail.

    £11.4 billion has been earmarked for NPfIT, the NHS’s National Programme for IT, and £11.4 billion is what Sir David Nicholson KCB CBE, Chief Executive, will spend.

    NPfIT has been excoriated by the National Audit Office, the Public Administration Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Water off a duck’s back.

    The fact that this expenditure of public money is not in the public interest cannot deter Sir David. The fact that CSC, one of the NPfIT contractors, is currently being sued for deception by its own shareholders is, in his eyes, a reason to give CSC another £3 billion.

    When the Prime Minister himself suggested that the NHS think twice about this £3 billion, Sir David got his Chamberlain, Christine Connelly, to tell Mr Cameron to mind his own business. And interventions by Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary-“elect” of the Cabinet Office barely warrant a response.

    But now the sumptuous progress of this latter-day Bourbon is threatened by the determination of Richard Bacon MP, the Member for South Norfolk. Ms Connelly has been sacrificed. Sir David’s governance committee has been dissolved (not as funny as it sounds). And a people’s committee of sans-culottes aims to devolve power to the health trusts in line with the revolutionary government’s policy of localisation.

    The money is still pouring out. But the implacable Richard Bacon is beginning to staunch the flow and I commend him to the Spectator award judges.