Spending money on the front line

IT is easy to decry the Government's use of outside experts. Consultancy has become one of the state sector's growth industries. Their use has also been a convenient means for decision-makers – whether they be Ministers, councillors or highly-paid public servants – to delay difficult decisions.

Some perspective is required. While this bill is, inevitably, going to be reduced by the coalition, taxpayers only hear about those cases where public money has been squandered. Yet there are many instances where such expertise has saved money because of the level of knowledge that consultants have brought to the table. Each quango is unlikely to have skills available to tackle every conceivable scenario.

This needs to be remembered when assessing the concerns about the 30m that the Environment Agency has spent locally in the past five years on hiring outside experts to draw up flood defence schemes.

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Given the sheer number of projects that remain outstanding, and the limited funds available, this does appear – at first glance – to be a disproportionate sum.

However, it needs to be borne in mind that preventative measures are complex schemes that require years of planning. For example, it is essential that improvements in one community do not disperse floodwater downstream and leave other homes in danger.

For this reason, the EA is entirely right to use consultants rather than rely upon the local knowledge of farmers, and others, who contend that they have the answers at their fingertips.

While government bodies have been guilty of not making sufficient use of such insight, those who decry the use of consultants will be the first to complain if millions of pounds are spent on improvements which fail to prevent the flooding threat in question.

That said, this must not preclude the EA from making efficiencies and ensuring that as much money as possible is spent on protecting communities from a climate that is forecast to become even more unpredictable in the years ahead. It's not just the building of new schemes that needs to be advanced; so, too, does the upkeep of existing measures, such as the East Yorkshire water courses that, according to farmers, are being poorly maintained.