Who’s responsible for the hopeless response to the floods? In typical British fashion, it’s everyone and no one

The governments does not believe in – or is afraid of taking – direct responsibility

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Parts of Government blame the Environment Agency. The agency blames parts of the Government. Local MPs blame the agency and parts of the Government, but they hail Prince Charles. Some call for the Broads Authority to have more power, while others call for councils to do more. The vile weather has generated a very typical British crisis. So many different institutions and individuals are theoretically responsible, no one is really responsible at all.

Belatedly, Chris Smith is fighting back, on behalf of the Environment Agency, after weeks of sniping that implied, misleadingly, that it had a free hand in responding to the floods. But the Agency acts with at least one hand tied behind its back. The Government sets its budget, appoints the key personnel and defines more or less what it can and cannot do. Last week we learnt about the limits of Ofsted’s independence when Michael Gove dumped Baroness Morgan. Now we learn more about the relationship between the Environment Agency and ministers. The seeds of the hopelessly inadequate response to the floods were sown long ago.

After the election, to a chorus of cheers from most of the media, inexperienced ministers rushed around looking for cuts. Those ministers who cut fastest and deepest were most praised. Spending on flood defences was an early target, along with the overall budget of the Environment Agency. Now, those same parts of the media are screaming about the response to the floods, another example of the mad “tax and spend” debate where cuts are praised in general and condemned when specific consequences arise. The incoherence of the broader ideological debate about the role of the state extends further. Pre-floods, I heard interviews with Right-wing farmers in Somerset and elsewhere calling for the Government to get off their backs. Now, they are crying out for intervention. Like the bankers in 2008, they have discovered the virtues of the state.

The lack of independence does not let the Environment Agency off the hook completely. Smith and other senior figures should have realised the direction this furore would take and adopted a higher profile from the beginning. Leaving a visit to Somerset to the end of last week was far too late. Smith gets on well with the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, but their conversations were private. Smith should have been publicly demanding more resources. That role was left to Prince Charles. Only in England could a non-elected Prince come to the rescue. One of the Somerset MPs, Ian Liddell Grainger, tells me the Prince’s visit was “transformative”, adding that Charles was on the phone to David Cameron within hours. It was then that the Prime Minister took charge. The Government, several agencies, and local authorities are all supposed to be responsible. It took a Prince to cut through the blurred lines.

 

Now Cameron is in charge. Even this Government, with its instinctive wariness of the state, knows it cannot step back from taking virtually sole responsibility. In the end, for all his attempts to devolve power, Cameron knows that he will get the blame. So he takes action, belatedly. Smith has said that the extra cash that the Prime Minister announced last week will make a big difference. The Environment Agency chairman should have adopted a high profile and been more pro-active, but presumably he not see his role as the public figurehead because he is not the public figurehead. He is appointed by the Government and accountable to the Government. Presumably Cameron did not believe he was responsible because the Environment Agency, local councils and even in some cases the Waterways Board were in charge. Or were they?

We have been here so many times before. Is Ofsted responsible for giving independent verdicts on Free Schools or only judgements that Gove wants to read? Is the elected Health Secretary or NHS England, the vast quango that resents interventions from Jeremy Hunt, responsible for the health service? When GCSEs are not properly assessed should a minister resign or the head of the quango that oversees exams?

If anyone asks, “Who is responsible?” and the reply is, “It’s all a bit complicated,” there is trouble ahead. The problem arises in England because governments do not believe in – or are afraid of taking – direct responsibility, but still want to retain control. They have no faith in local government (although some councils are theoretically involved in the current weather crisis) so large number of quangos act as intermediaries.

But, as we are discovering yet again, central Government decides how much they spend and often how they spend it. And when crises erupt, it takes full control. Ministers should remember, when they make cuts and hope others get the blame for the consequences, that in the end they are the ones with their heads on the block.

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