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Shuffling the pack


What a ridiculous system of government we have. In one bizarre reactionary sweep, Tony Blair has given us a new transport secretary, a new environment secretary, a new trade secretary and a new local government and communities minister (or whatever it is that Ruth Kelly calls herself nowadays).

What hope is there for the proper, informed decision making that is vital to give the UK the costly, complex and usually controversial infrastructure needed to underpin our economic growth.

At a stroke we see long serving transport minister Alistair Darling put in charge of energy policy and replaced by a Europe expert. We see the long standing - and confirmed antinuclear - environment secretary Margaret Beckett replaced by an enthusiastic proponent of grand scale inappropriate development.

And we see the vital, yet complex, regional spatial strategies handed over to a failed education secretary and former journalist who, just days into the job was already this week spouting pearls of wisdom over the airwaves about housing and community development policy.

Can any of them really be on top of their subjects already?

Well no. And let's face it, even if our politicians were all geniuses we'd still be in trouble.

Add to this the myriad of junior ministerial job changes - reshuffl s and resignations - including the departure of construction minister Alan Michael.

The unlikely figure of one-time children's minister Margaret Hodge replaces him - a more worrying prospect had it been a proper portfolio within the DTI to start with.

However, the removal of Elliot Morley is perhaps much more interesting. Here was a seemingly committed environment minister who has spent nine years building up experience, contacts and respect in a quite specialised and specific area of water and flooding. So what happened?

By all accounts, with his assistance and support, practical progress was being made on flooding and the on-going supply difficulties now faced by water companies. One can only assume that he must have disagreed with Blair's thinking - perhaps on climate change or nuclear power?

All of which, if true, underlines the current government's apparent and very disturbing willingness to sacrifice nationally important issues for the sake of its own survival and the agendas that it supports.

At best Blair's reshuffle has created a situation of well orchestrated and well calculated confusion designed to distract the nation and media from the reality of a government and prime minister going through a troubled third term of office.

At worst it does all of the above while also highlighting that it matters very little who is in charge of the various government departments because the real decisions are made in Downing Street.

Certainly on many issues the latter is very obviously the case.

Yet it is not so for all. And that said, it is therefore vital that our secretaries of state know about the issues tackled by the departments they run.

Frankly I don't know what the answer is. Should government be given longer, guaranteed periods of offi ce? Should ministers be obliged to stay in offi ce for a full term of government?

Big questions. Certainly we need to ensure that politicians are better informed and advised on complex infrastructure issues - and here the engineering profession must raise its game.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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