Nine English regional development agencies (RDAs) were created by Labour in 1999. They’re funded by six different government departments, and manage money from the European Regional Development Fund and the Rural Development Fund for England.
These quangos (quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organisations) operate under such mystery that even Labour politicians rail against them.
Back in October Blackley MP Graham Stringer described NWDA policies as “economically indefensible” and new chairman Robert Hough as “looking for a justification for a job and position that have no justification”.
Stringer also attacked the government for persisting with regional government after it scrapped the regional assemblies, which were supposed to scrutinise the business-led RDAs. After this the RDAs were handed “executive responsibility for developing the single regional strategy”.
Many Conservatives have said they want to abolish the RDAs, though the Party has not announced it as policy. Maybe they’re serious, but it seems unlikely, considering how much business loves the RDAs, since they funnel a lot of money through to the private sector.
Len Collinson of Private Sector Partners, which represents 24 professional institutions and trade associations, and over 140,000 firms in the Northwest, said the NWDA has “worked diligently at building credibility with businesses” and “listens well to businesses”. It “ultimately serves the interests of the Region most evenly”.
Well…business interests. And some a little more than others.
Peeling away the layers
Robert Hough became chairman of the NWDA in August 2009, succeeding Bryan Gray. In an interview with NWDA magazine 315°, he described his own ethos in three words: “purpose, pace and delivery”. He learnt this in 20 years at Peel Holdings, where he was deputy chairman and an executive director for over 13 years.
Peel Holdings is the empire of tax-shy John Whittaker, who currently resides on the Isle of Man with an estimated personal wealth of £1.3 billion. The group’s companies, with assets worth over £4.5 billion, are mostly registered on the tax haven too.
Backed by oil money of the powerful Saudi Olayan family, the group variously owns: the Trafford Centre, Manchester Ship Canal and three other ports, four airports and MediaCityUK in Salford, just a few famous names within a huge property portfolio. They also have a large stake in UK Coal.
It might seem normal enough that a leading businessman and developer would get a job like chairman of NWDA. He’s a “public-private champion” according to AllBusiness. Stringer also said of Chairman Hough: “As a capitalist, he has put a great deal of effort into the community” – whatever that means.
But he’s not the only one. Last year the Salford Star reported that former NWDA chair Bryan Gray was being paid as chair of Peel Media, which runs MediaCityUK.
When the NWDA advertised for the new chairman, it defined conflict of interest as “an individual’s private, voluntary, charitable or political interests relevant to the work of the public body”. It also said that the public must “have confidence in their independence and impartiality”.
Yet Gray was financially involved in companies, including Peel Media, Urban Splash Hotels and a company called Energetix, which have received over £35 million from the NWDA. In 2009 he was given a CBE for “services to business and to the community of the North West”. At this time both the NWDA chairman, Gray, and deputy chairman, Hough, were in paid employment with Peel Holdings.
The NWDA defended Mr Gray and wrote to the Salford Star, “Any projects involving the NWDA that have external partner involvement, whether past, current or future, are considered and dealt with within the strict corporate governance procedures of the Agency, which will include appropriate declaration of interests of a Board member.”
Hough has given up the deputy chairmanship of Peel Holdings, as well as 15 other Peel directorships, but remains a paid director of Peel Holdings (Management). He has other paid directorships at planning and urban design consultants Turley Associates, property services and development company Styles and Wood Group, consumer credit business Provident Financial, and property development and investment group PJKI.
It sounds like quite a lot of work. On top of all those he does three days a week at the NWDA, where he’s paid £81,718 per year, and another £9,000 from sitting on the boards of Business Link Northwest and the Learning & Skills National Council.
Is that all then? No. He’s on the Business in the Community Northwest Advisory Board, and a member of the Northern Way Steering Group. He’s also a governor of the University of Manchester. Hough has just given up the chairmanship of New East Manchester, where he has been for seven years. He’s also been chairman of the Cheshire Building Society, Manchester Commonwealth Games, President of Manchester Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and even High Sheriff of Greater Manchester. He‘s recently given up being a director of the North West Business Leadership Team and the Mersey Partnership too.
Perhaps he has a thousand clones and can manipulate time. It’s lucky he has “purpose, pace and delivery”.
But apparently it doesn’t matter that the chairman of the NWDA is remunerated by five massive private companies and is a member of two other boards. It doesn’t matter that the NWDA is giving money to companies setting up in MediaCityUK, where most are struggling to afford Peel’s rates, other than the publicly funded BBC (who will reportedly pay £170 million in rent by 2030). Or that the NWDA is investing £30.4 million directly into the development’s infrastructure, while Peel gives a ‘contribution’ of just £1.68 million.
The latest development of no significance is the inclusion of the “Atlantic Gateway concept” among the key themes of the NWDA’s Regional Strategy for England’s Northwest 2010. Though it doesn’t mention Peel by name, it’s a reference to the company’s controversial £50 billion plan for the Manchester Ship Canal and River Mersey area, which crosses several local authorities and includes 12 large projects. It’s along here that Peel recently put in what it claims is the biggest ever planning application in the UK, for its East Float scheme at the Wirral Waters redevelopment. It’s probably a coincidence.