Who regulates the regulators?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

When state-owned monopoly businesses were privatised in the 1980s and 90s, I welcomed most of them as I thought that it might free up the investment needed to modernise the enterprises and make them more responsive to customers.  After all, anything funded by the Treasury was never likely to do the former, and the sad history of UK nationalised industries showed that customers were the last thing on anyone's mind.

Sadly, it has not worked out like that.  Whether we look at water (high bills and sewage in the rivers) or energy (high bills and insecure supply) or phones (high bills and a sloth-like roll out of broadband) or ..., it looks a problem.

I felt at the time that a lot would depend on how the regulators did their job.  That looks a particular disappointment, particularly so with water where between the regulator and the Environment Agency, corporates have been very well looked after, but UK citizens who fancy a swim much less so.

Regulators seem unaccountable to the public.  I guess they are supposed to be accountable to parliament in some arcane fashion, but search me as to how that is.  Mind you, the accountability of nationalised industries was similarly opaque.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? indeed!  The wikipedia page on Juvenal's phrase is ironically instructive.

When the fashion for regulators was at its height, I feared it might stray into other commercial areas of public life – just imagine the chaos that a supermarket (or coffee shop) regulator would cause.  It has been extended into broadcasting and school exams to no great success in my mind.

Looking back, it's clear that I've held a dim view of regulators for a while.  My evidence for this is that I began writing about OfScoff – Office for Strictures and Control on Fodder and Food – in 2010.  This frighteningly plausible but entirely fictional regulator, whose remit is to establish minimum food standards for animals and people, and make sure that these are never exceeded, might seem to have been more successful than many an official one.  The first post set the scene, although it took me a while to develop the idea.  See this and this – and this for news of OfPlot – the regulator for allotments, domestic and school gardens, window boxes, patio tubs, and all hitherto unregulated growing spaces in England.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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