Government’s a funny business.
Last Friday for example, I wandered into a civil service festival of wailing and breast-beating over a listed building case in Leeds. It all turned on a straightforward application to list some rather beautiful, modern and – as far as I could see – entirely uncontroversial buildings on the campus at the university in that city. It was indeed a classic, but not at all unusual, case of a listing application coming in, receiving the thumbs up from our expert advisors at English Heritage, rumbling through the system without so much as a murmur of dissent from anyone else, and ending up with one of my officials who, following correct procedures, signed it off. Abracadabra, the sum total of listed buildings in England is increased by one. More than one, actually, but let’s not get side-tracked.
So far, so good.
But why were my officials worrying? What did they think they’d done wrong? Well, the trouble was that a chance remark from me a couple of weeks ago – that I rather wanted to make a public announcement when the first high-quality modern listing case crossed my desk for a decision – had not got as far as the official who signed off the decision in my name. And that meant my opportunity to put down a gentle marker to the architecture and heritage world that the new regime would not be quite the same as its predecessor had been fluffed.
Worse things happen at sea, as they say (and more on that, by the way, in weeks to come when I’ll tell you about the mysterious world of marine archaeology and its place in my policy mix) but more to the point, the press had got hold of it. And the magazine had roped in a former minister who saw it all as a very bad show indeed. ‘Ministers are accountable for decisions’ and should ‘be enthusiastic about grasping . . . power to good effect for the community and future generations’ my critic opined, while reproaching me, in passing, for not paying a visit to see every listing case for myself. Oh yikes! And it had all started so well.
But hang on a minute. The right decision was taken and everyone, save a couple of grumpy exceptions, was happy. So let’s look at the charge sheet in that light:
- Heritage Minister delegated non-contentious listing decision to experienced civil servants
- Heritage Minister failed to spin story
- Heritage Minister neglected to travel 200 miles to personally inspect case he was not personally going to rule on
Guilty on all counts, I fear. But chastened though I was, I did take time to look into the facts and figures surrounding the issue. Nine out of ten listing cases are handled by civil servants without crossing the minister’s desk at all. Only one in four of all listing applications are successful. This has been the case for many years and in all probability will continue to be the case in the future. Oh, and as for those all-important ministerial site-visits to see cases in the flesh before making a judgement – my critic made precisely four.
My first blog ended up hanging around before publication for rather longer than I would have liked, meaning that my thoughts and reflections had become a little dusty with age by the time they got to you. This, I was told, was because the Blog Platform on the new website failed to link properly, so a soft launch was all we could manage. I’m assured we should be able to get future bulletins out more promptly, probably on a Tuesday. Time, as we so often say, will tell.