Four reasons why policy-making shouldn't be outsourced to right-wing think tanks

Take a look at the institutions to which, if Francis Maude gets his way, the Government will be outsourcing policy. Does it seem sensible to you?

 

The “report from a respected think tank” news story is a staple of political reporting these days, especially now that the average news desk is manned by three hacks on minimum wage and a couple of kids on work experience. The media doesn’t tend to ask too much about the people producing these reports - they just give us the headline, give us a response from someone who doesn’t like it, and bang, story done.

And what this means is that big business has a louder voice than ever. Corporations have been able to quietly influence policy outside of traditional lobbying procedures in the past by infiltrating the civil service via the revolving door of the jobs market, but that advice is at least supposed to be objective. Now Francis Maude is suggesting that Government policy making should be outsourced to - among other bodies - think tanks, which have tax-free charitable status based on their aims to improve public policy. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it certainly raises questions about transparency and accountability. Here’s a quick look at a few of the think tanks on the right to illustrate why.

1. Reform

Founded by Nick Herbert, one of those Tories it’s generally considered ok for lefties to like. Unlike pretty much every other right-wing think tank, is open about who funds it and how much. Last year it received £1,251,501, which you’d hope would pay for some damn good ideas. On that note: produced a report this year entitled The Case for Private Prisons, which suggested private prisons offer better value for money and lower reoffending rates, an argument which wasn't supported by the Prison Reform Trust and was even described as “simplistic” by prisons minister Jeremy Wright.

Co-incidentally, three of its “corporate partners” are G4S, Serco and Sodexo, who run all the private prisons in Britain. This is pretty much par for the course - in the pages of the Times and Telegraph Reform has previously bigged up privately-run custody suites, and the idea of G4S bobbies on the beat. But unlike most of the others, at least it's open about where it’s coming from.

What’s a bit more under the radar, however, is the issue of ministerial access. Reform has previously claimed corporations like G4S are “left out of the Whitehall policy discussion” which is, well, debatable (yes, that’s 17 meetings with ministers since 2010). But fear not - it’s doing what it can to remedy the situation. In its prospectus for the Tory Party conference it boasted to potential sponsors that it could set up “successful events attended by ministers and shadow ministers, special advisers, MPs, MEPs and council leaders”, among them Mark Prisk, Lord Freud and Mark Hoban. Any “partner organisation” could use roundtable events or dinners with “around 20 high-level participants” to put their own “insights into the relevant policy debate at the beginning of the meeting”.

2. Policy Exchange

Founded by Nick Boles, Michael Gove and Francis Maude. To get a feel for the enthusiasm of this merry camp of dreamers, you need only read Gove’s sadly-deleted and somewhat hyperbolic testimony on their website: “Policy Exchange were a tiny band of guerrillas, partisans in the hillside fighting a lonely campaign, but now, that tiny guerrilla band has turned into the most formidable regular army on the thinktank battlefield."

If Reform is the Greg Dyke of right wing think tanks, Policy Exchange is undoubtedly the John Birt: “blue sky” doesn’t come close. Reform’s ideas might annoy everyone except those who don’t like big government, but Policy Exchange regularly sets the bar higher and manages to get on their wick too. If you want a good example, think of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, described by then “Head of Crime and Justice” Blair Gibbs as “the boldest reform to policing since the 1960s”.

Gibbs is a classic Tory think tank wonk: Oxford University Conservative Association, stints at Reform and the Taxpayers’ Alliance, MP’s researcher, Policy Exchange, and now he’s working for BoJo. An impressive CV which suggests a somewhat detached relationship with the practicalities of the field in which he’s an "expert". He was on Twitter, but described himself as one of the “four horsemen” of police reform, and this provoked such a furious reaction he had to leave. Let’s face it, if you’re a copper who risks his life every time he goes to work and who’s about to be hit by Government cuts, that’s probably not the sort of thing you want to read from a twenty-something policymaker.

(Incidentally, this is a common complaint about think tanks - salaries tend to top out pretty early, which means their employees go and do something else (usually working as Spads). To quote Zoe Williams: “It is noticeable [...] how often you're told by a 28-year-old that care of patients with Alzheimer's can be managed by text message and ‘parenting classes can improve community engagement and lead to local wellbeing’”.)

Anyway, the PCC plan has been hit by a number of setbacks. First, it’s never a good idea to hold an election when you don’t know who the candidates are or indeed what they’re standing for. Then you’ve got the Paris Brown affair and now this extraordinary freedom of speech horrorshow, which is a whole blog post in itself. One of the companies to fund Policy Exchange is Deloitte, which issued press releases saying PCCs must “get to grips with current policing operations” and “focus on reforming pay, pensions and paperwork, the financial management of their force, and cutting costs.” Hard to think which firm they could hire to achieve that.

3. Centre for Social Justice

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), founded by Iain Duncan Smith, is perhaps the most prominent face of modern compassionate conservatism. Which to many means: wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its output and the thinking behind the Government’s welfare reforms are so closely related as to be indistinguishable - its last head, Philippa Stroud, is now Duncan Smith’s Spad, the current one was his speech writer. All three are churchgoers: all the fun of traditional Tory cuts, but now with added evangelical Christian zeal!

So the CSJ doesn’t believe in benefit “scroungers”, but it is big on the whole “tragedy of generations trapped on benefits thing”; though it hasn’t said much on the reports suggesting this framing is somewhat overplayed. To be fair to the CSJ, it’s shown a certain open-mindedness of late. Its director gave an interview to the Guardian in which he admitted the think-tank hadn’t concentrated enough on in-work poverty, instead focussing on those old right-wing bugbears like drug addiction, benefit dependency and, rather more controversially given the story described in the first link above, family breakdown. Now you might think he’s come to the table a bit late on all this, and you’d be right, what with people in this publication and others making the point that the majority of benefits claimants are in work for oh, I don’t know, YEARS, but it’s a start.

And you have to say the CSJ seems generally more well-intentioned than others. Or at least you do if they’ve quoted you in their research (oh yes, dear readers). But this rather begs the question of who’s funding their work. Someone gave them circa £1.5m last year to come up with their ideas, but we have no idea who they are. We can see that one of the CSJ’s award sponsors is the recruitment firm Manpower, and that raises questions, because that firm is one of the largest shareholders in Working Links, a major player in the DWP’s Work Programme and which has been accused of systematic fraud. Maybe we don’t want to go down this rabbit hole, because then you’d start asking whether it’s right that the people contracting (and indeed investigating) the firm in Government should also receive money from them in another capacity.

4. Centre for Crime Prevention

Just thought I’d drop this one in as it tells us rather a lot about how our media works. As you can see, the Centre for Crime Prevention has clocked up a number of media appearances, quoted in the Sun, Express, Metro and Mirror among others, with serious, weighty headlines like “Soft on hardened criminals: Now two thirds of serious repeat offenders avoid jail”, “Reoffending rates show "revolving door" community sentences not working, critics say,” and so on.

So they’re a right wing think tank and they like hard, punitive justice. Fair enough. But who are they? Well here’s the thing: they’re one man (Peter Cuthbertson from the Taxpayers’ Alliance), and his blog. Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take him seriously. Actually no, I am saying that. Read his quote here, then read this and see who you agree with. But that’s another issue.

I’m just saying that I have access to Google, some pretty damn trenchant views on stuff (mostly DVD box sets, but still) and the capacity to put out a press release. I’m no hack: I’m a think tank. Brace yourself, news editors.

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I could go on with all this, but I think you’re getting the picture. The question though, is whether think tanks backed by big business are such a bad thing. Hopi Sen has previously made a decent argument in favour of think tanks across the political spectrum. And these are certainly good for the bright young right wing things who work for them - they can go on to jobs as political advisers or at the firms whose backs they’ve been scratching - but they’re also good for you. Because really - what else are they going to do in their twenties? Go into journalism, get slowly driven mad by the experience of writing for an online audience and wind up calling people “Libtards” on Twitter while guffing on about climate change? Do we need more of that? Or even worse - go into proper politics and become an MP? Do you want the guy representing your democratic interests to have been submitting comedy motions about how his Oxbridge college could declare war on Brussels at Junior Common Room meetings two years previously? No, didn’t think so. The simple fact is these institutions provide a public service. Long may they reign.

Theresa May giving a speech at Policy Exchange in December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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