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Who really runs public services in the North-East?

Photo by Refhad on Unsplash

Amongst several commentators there remains a debate as to where ‘real’ power lies with unelected public services across the North East of England – known as the ”quango-state”.

Based on earlier work by the Teesside author Chris Foot-Wood in 2014, new research by academics based at Northumbria and Durham Universities reveal that the region’s further education colleges, universities, NHS Trusts, Northern Arts, and local enterprise partnerships are run by a narrow range of people.

This ‘ruling elite’ or Geordeoisie numbers about 2,000. 100 regional groupings are responsible for 80 per cent of public spending in the North East. Few members of the public know who these people are.

They are well-connected socially, culturally and educationally. They pull the strings.

Who run the public services?

According to professors Keith Shaw, Fred Robinson, and Sue Regan in their report Who Runs the North East, they are mainly upper middle-class, male and middle-aged people who are not representative of the region’s population. The majority of those in charge are men – though more women are involved than there used to be.

Examining the profile of non-executive board memberships, it’s clear that North East public establishments are largely run by people with professional and upper middle-class backgrounds. In the words of Keith Shaw, they’ve become the ”usual suspects”.

For Martin Short in his book Inside the Brotherhood, masonic links remain important when it comes to the appointment of these boards.

According to Foot-Wood, in his monograph North East England- Land of 100 Quangos, members of quangos are very well paid for their work. QMBs are expected to do three hours a month, yet get a hefty fee for their services. This can amount to up to £400 per hour, or more if they are a chair. The average stipend of a regional quango is £6,500 for 10 days work a year.

These people are not simply middle-class in the conventional sense, but are made up of a privileged strata of society – the top 1% who command annual incomes of over £150k.

They far outstrip the everyday market position of the average white-collar or blue-collar worker. Such workers are excluded from what has become a ”quangorite” gravy train, with some people leaving one highly paid position only to slip into another. It’s like a magic circle of self-interested ‘fat cats’.

The lack of representation

Of-course, socio-economic status and age can be a key asset bringing life experience to bear when running public services and bodies. But in terms of age, the region’s public bodies are mainly governed by middle-aged people. In many bodies, people under 45 are barely represented. Only ten per cent of health service clinical commissioning groups are under 45. In colleges and universities, young people on governing bodies are usually the student union reps.

Although more women than ever before serve on elected bodies like councils, only one out of 21 NHS organisations has more women than men on its board. Only one out of 19 FE colleges has a governing body made up of more women than men – though the majority of college principals are women.

The two local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in the region are male dominated. Only 20 per cent of those sitting on these important business organisations are women.

There’s been progress in terms of gender representation on university councils, but six of ten members of these are male, with Durham University being a bastion of class privilege.

In terms of ethnicity, few non-white groups are represented. In the NHS, less than half of CGCs and Trusts had someone from a BAME background. Two of the regions’ five universities have no BAME governors, and only one member of the Arts Council is black.

Disabled people are also seriously under-represented on these boards. None of the CCG governing bodies have a member who is registered disabled. Only one of the eleven Foundation Trusts have a disabled governor.

Despite their commitment to social inclusion, only four out of 14 colleges have a disabled governor.

Does representation matter?

The empirical evidence suggests that these various unelected organisations are still inclined to appoint people (via secretive prestigious recruitment agencies) with professional and business backgrounds (adding to the skills and experiences already held by non-executive members) rather than ordinary working-class ‘active citizens’ or people like elected backbench councillors to represent their communities.

Does it matter? Defenders of this system of patronage think not. ‘Experts’ from the financial sector are needed (and much in demand). Public services like colleges, universities and LEPs are increasingly led and managed like private sector enterprises.

That’s why they need accountants, lawyers, HR and marketing professionals and those in land and property development. The universities are a case in point. They all have more governors engaged in financial services than governors from BAME backgrounds or with disabilities.

But for Shaw and his colleagues, what we have across the North East are governing bodies made up of the ”pale, male and stale” –  a ”technocracy” or professional class. Free from public scrutiny or democratic accountability, this tightly knit group amounts to a shadowy under-world of a self-serving Geordoise elite.

Boards are composed of self-perpetuating elites, the ”perpetually selected”. The boards have in effect become self-selecting. Those few with the power narrowly define who ‘fits’ on the board and who doesn’t.

The journalist Polly Toynbee terms this a ‘chumocracy’. It’s not what you know but who you know that counts. This lack of diversity and inclusivity on boards and picking people in their own image too often leads to ‘group think’ or a one dimensional mind-set.

Selecting upper middle-class, able-bodied and middle-aged male professionals from the leafy suburbs of Gosforth, the posh market towns of the Tyne Valley, and the Northumbrian shires can too often result in a culture of complacency, a lack of robust challenge to public sector leaders in an era of rapid change or, worse, failure.

The exclusion of people from working-class, BAME and disabled backgrounds means less critical debate, less creativity and weaker decision-making.

After two decades of formal equality legislation, there’s a compelling narrative to make our public bodies at the top more representative of the communities that they serve and public services they provide. And more open, transparent and accountable too.

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