Given that it sets out to help some of the most damaged and deprived young people in the UK, no-one can regard the collapse of the charity “Kids Company” with anything other than sadness. However, there are lessons to be drawn from the story which the Government and the Heritage Sector would do well to take account of.
The foremost of these lessons is that if you are a national or local politician and a charitable or private sector service provider, especially one with a high public profile, approaches you and promises to deliver a first rate service at no risk, they are telling you what you want to hear, not necessarily what can be delivered. In the case of Kids Company it is local authority social services, often derided by neo-liberal economists as bloated, lazy and inefficient, who are now being asked to step into the breach to support the collapsed charity’s caseload. It must be hoped that they still have the capacity to cope in spite of being hollowed out and emasculated by the Government’s austerity programme. A policy which has all too often looked less like an attempt to “fix the roof” and balance the books and more like an ideological attempt to slash and burn established and functional, if imperfect, structures, and clear the ground to give the new private and third sector charitable providers like Kids Company, a clear space to grow.
On land there is growing evidence from many parts of England that this slash, burn and rigging the field of heritage protection and planning, is coming back to haunt the politicians responsible at local and national level. Cuts, plus the lack of legislation to protect museum collections from predatory local politicians on the hunt for Wonga style quick cash, has led to the sale of Skehemka and an international cultural incident with Egypt at a time when the Government needs all the allies it can get in the Middle East. Meanwhile, from Norton Folgate where local campaigners have seen off British Land through to the increasingly bitterly contested battle over Old Oswestry Hill Fort, it is only a matter of time before there is a high profile PR car crash over a heritage site, where the prevailing ideology of cost cutting, deregulation and building, will run hard up against the reality of unacceptable damage to a significant monument or landscape and a voting public, which is fully informed and fully mobilised via the traditional and social media. However, for now the most blatant example of the dangers of what we can now call “Kids Company Procurement” in the heritage sector, whereby favored, private sector, contractors are fast tracked to funding and permissions with the uncritical support of Ministers, is the interdepartmental shambles which is now the HMS Victory 1744 Project.
All the evidence suggests that when Lord Lingfield held his off the record “constituency meeting” with then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the Summer of 2010, the decision was taken, however tacitly, to set up a charity to allow for a private sector solution to the management of the HMS Victory 1744 wreck site. This was done for ideological reasons, and the Government maintained the course set by Mr Hunt in spite of the warnings of civil servants, English Heritage [now Historic England] and professional representative bodies from the heritage sector, that Lord Lingfield’s “Maritime Heritage Foundation” [MHF] lacked experience, capacity and was, it was argued, far too close to the controversial commercial treasure hunters, Odyssey Marine Exploration. Since then the contractor, Odyssey, has repeatedly run foul of the Courts and regulatory sanctions, while the Government has been humiliated by its inability to defend the Victory process against a threatened Judicial Review. Worse still, Odyssey as a provider has become toxic across Government. The Department for Transport was forced to settle out of court when an unsuccessful bidder sued over the Department’s handling of Odyssey’s salvage contract for bullion aboard SS Gairsoppa and Odyssey’s alleged underpayment of the Government’s share of the proceeds. That cost the Government £15 million plus costs. A figure which approaches £20 million if you include the money Odyssey allegedly owes. If you like, that is six “Kid’s Company” Bail Outs, or applied to the heritage sector, eight HMS Victory projects where profit is not a factor, or enough money to place mainstream professional maritime archaeology on a sustainable basis for some time. In that context, the idea that using private sector providers like Odyssey saves money, which was always questionable, vanishes completely.
From the Government’s point of view the only good thing about the Victory debacle is that Lord Lingfield lacks the charisma and dress sense of Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, in fact he lacks charisma full stop and thus won’t be touring the TV studio’s to castigate the Government’s support and motives, while Odyssey’s CEO Mark Gordon, tends to limit his media appearances to puff pieces on Fox Business promising to monetize the latest [secret] cargo and answering soft ball questions on corporate teleconferences.
Of course, there are critical differences between the collapse of Kid’s Company and the problems of provision and capacity facing the heritage sector. For one thing, even George Osborne’s Treasury does not see deprived children as a brake on growth. It does seem to regard the heritage sector in this way and as a result has repeatedly cut the funding of Historic England, while rigging the agency’s operating guidelines to ensure it did not challenge the Government’s definition of “sustainable development” and letting developers redraft the planning rules. When it comes to planning King Herod was indeed put in charge of the child protection policy. Even so, the Department for Work and Pensions have successfully re-branded the definition of Child Poverty in a manner which suggests that the department would also redefine Fagin as an entrepreneur offering Inner City employment opportunities to London’s homeless youth. The case for accountable, public sector provision, consistent across the Country was being lost But that was before Kids Company.
The painfully public discovery that, however colourful the clothes worn by Private Sector and charitable providers, their ability to deliver might actually be an illusion, means that the crucial lesson which can be carried across Government from the Kids Company collapse is that there is a strong, evidence based, case for professionally staffed, fully accountable, services undertaken in the public interest. Not least because when a private sector, deregulated, zero hours solution to an issue the public and media care about, goes wrong it does so big time, very publicly and someone has to be there to pick up the pieces. A patch work of private sector providers, the charitable sector and “Big Society” volunteers are just not up to it without coordination by the Government and, almost certainly, large injections of the very cash which was meant to have been saved. As the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review continues through the Summer and Autumn, this is an argument the Heritage Sector must make as forcefully as possible. Culture and Environment Ministers can also find their careers just as damaged if they bet the house on the wrong delivery models and the wrong service providers, in the same way that the Prime Minister’s uncritical support for Kids Company and overriding of expert advice is damaging his reputation today. Like the Prime Minister, they too might be grateful for whoever remains of the professional, accountable experts who can haul the ministerial backside out of the media flames.
As archaeologists know and Ministers should be reminded. Slash and burn is only sustainable for a few years before the ground becomes exhausted and the practitioners have to either move on, or develop something more sustainable. It is one of the reasons why, in many instances of human history, people settle down to create durable, integrated communities as soon as the technology and social structures allow.