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MPs have made fools of themselves over urban policy

Imagine having to defend John Prescott twice in a fortnight. But somebody has to do it after the extraordinarily stupid attack on him and his department by the Labour-dominated Environment Select Committee (with friends like these . . .). It describes government policies on urban regeneration and rural protection as airy and ineffective, adding little to the debate other than to doubt whether planners and others are up to the job of implementing the ideas of the Urban Task Force. This is just another insult to public-sector staff more than capable of implementing policy - once that policy has been fully established. Policy is not yet fully established for understandable reasons, and it is inevitable that there will be an interim period where uncertainties and anomalies will exist.

What should policy be? That is now being debated in the wake of the Urban Task Force Report, an excellent document with only one problem: the large number of recommendations, which require prioritising, and the fact that some of them have been rejected in the past. Mandarins have long memories. The quality of the report, however, is indisputable; unfortunately, the select committee is under the mistaken impression that magic wands can be waved now that this hard thinking has been done (cf transport policy). In reality, a proper response to the proposals from the task force requires a reasonably long period for consideration, not simply to assess the merits of the detailed proposals, but to think about the sequencing of implementation, and how to deal with their knock- on effects.

If the mps on the select committee, particularly the Labour members, wish to complain about delay and uncertainty, they should consider their own performance in relation to Lords reform. After a period of 18 years in opposition, the new government arrived with no coherent idea about the nature of the second chamber it wishes to see introduced, hence the inordinate gestation period for a fundamental piece of constitutional reform. By contrast, in relation to the rethinking of the urban environment, Mr Prescott looks like Speedy Gonzales.

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