Change in Whitehall has to come…

Dr Clive Black

August 9, 2023 11:01 am
Change in Whitehall has to come…

I have written previously in these pages about the catalogue of incompetence and incapability at the heart of Whitehall, which is a draining burden upon the energy, goodwill, patience, and finances of the British food industry.

The largest industry in the UK in so many respects, a ten minute speech from the Prime Minister is all it receives whilst second rate Ministers and civil servants mess about with little sense of purpose never mind accountability and responsibility, remembering that their wages and gold-plated pensions are part funded by the corporation taxes, PAYE and VAT collected on behalf of HMRC by the food system.

It would be ‘nice’ to be more hopeful, but the litany of crapness, not a word I use lightly, continues. One dreads to think how much this Government has expended on consultations, and how much businesses and trade associations, the latter funded by firms, have spent in time, energy, and cost to service them.

And yet after delaying and watering down HFSS and DRS, the industry now has the abandonment of food waste reporting. Many food businesses will have differing views on such matters, but it is just not effective administration to commence many initiatives, consult, go through the legislative process, and then abandon bearing in mind many firms have taken steps and invested to comply ahead of implementation.

Perhaps a low point in this sewer of administrative incompetence was the decision in July by Secretary of State Gove to turn down the planning application by Marks & Spencer, a client of Shore Capital Markets, where I happen to Vice Chairman, for the redevelopment of the ageing and asbestos ridden Marble Arch store on the grounds of carbon release.

M&S went through due process including Westminster Council, the Greater London Authority, and the independently appointed planning inspector by Gove. All these ‘bodies’ approved the redevelopment of the non-listed and distinctly dated outlet that post development would have been amongst the top 1% of sustainable buildings in the whole of the capital.

And yet, Gove, with selective environmentalists whispering in his ears, chose to turn it down, because he could. Again, we have a British business, acting in good faith, going through due process, to be flabbergasted at the last hurdle by a self-centred Minister. Understandably, M&S’ CEO, Stuart Machin was little short of apoplectic, noting that M&S is a wholly decent business held in generally high regard by the public and the trade.

All of the above is absolutely not the stuff of an advanced, competent, process and rules-based nation. Rather, it is the behaviour of a rotten, smug, detached, and arrogant Oxford University PPE club, where the term banana republic is an insult to the virtue of good fruit. The Marble Arch store is now up for review after M&S spending millions of pounds on an ultimately rotten process with closure potential high; and to be clear, if the Councils and inspectors had refused permissions it would have respected the outcome. The soon to be even more dilapidated north-west Oxford Street should be labelled ‘Goveswill’.

Alas, the Conservative Party since the late days of Cameron has been pretty rotten, no matter what one’s political persuasion, especially for the food system. Their scorecard is not good on so many fronts.., labour availability, energy strategy, relations with the EU and so forth.

In CY24 there will be a General Election where one hopes that more competent, capable and decent politicians will emerge, whilst radical change in the culture and workings of the civil service is necessary.

Lord Mark Sedwill, former Cabinet Secretary in a paper for Reform think-tank in August 2023 stated that the government needs systemic reform and modernisation with a civil service that is ‘too metropolitan, too short-term, too siloed and too rivalrous’. ‘We’ can kind of see this from the outside, but from the inside it is damning, not acceptable, and must change, if the country, and its food system are to fulfil the undoubted potential.

We can only hope at this stage, that the powers that be, sitting in their Home Counties and London suburban gardens, smell the coffee, otherwise in time, their could and should be a very rude awakening.


Dr Clive Black

Senior Advisor

Coriolis Consulting

August 2023

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