Leading article: The folly of allowing ideology to drive policy

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The Independent Online

The government experienced two humiliating reversals yesterday.

First, the High Court ruled that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, broke the law when he cancelled Labour's school-building programme without consulting the local authorities that would be affected. According to Mr Justice Holman, Mr Gove's move amounted to an "abuse of power".

Second, the Government watered down its proposals to sell off the state's forest estate to the private sector. The planned disposal of 15 per cent of state-owned forests in 2011 has been put on hold while ministers "re-examine the criteria" for disposing of them.

This is what happens when ideology, unhindered by preparation, is allowed to drive policy. Mr Gove took office convinced that Labour's education infrastructure investment programme was out of control. Rather than examine each project on its merits, he brought down the axe on all of them at once, leaving himself wide open to this legal challenge.

Ideology was responsible for the forests debacle too. Ministers were so obsessed with selling state forests that they gave no real though to issues of public access and biodiversity protection. They also presumed that environmental charities would be able to take over the management of protected woodlands.

Yet charities have made it clear that they lack the resources and expertise to take on such responsibilities. Ministers would have known that if they had consulted before announcing their intentions. Furthermore, the proceeds from the state's commercial forests are currently used to finance the management of protected woodlands. The costs of privatisation over the longer term could end up outweighing the immediate benefits.

This is not Mr Gove's first humiliation in office. His hasty decision last year to cut funding for school sports in England was overturned by the Prime Minister. Though the Education Secretary will now consult on school building and (almost certainly) reach the same conclusion, a rebuke from a High Court judge is not easily dismissed. Ministers are learning about the wide gulf between opposition and government. It is to be hoped that their learning curve is steep. Otherwise there will be more humiliations to come.