Having spent a decade in power fuelling the delusion that owning a plot of land gives you a right to decide what is built next door, the Conservative government is now confronting the consequences, with an energy crisis and inflation cruising past 6 per cent.
The United Kingdom was an expensive place to do or build anything before the 2010s, and it hasn’t improved. It still takes 3-5 years to build a solar farm, 5-7 for offshore wind, and 10-20 for nuclear power stations. Fracking sites, which can be up and running in a matter of months, are still waiting to be given the go ahead after 11 years of messing around with regulations and moratoriums. House building and even simple renovations which could take weeks instead takes months and years, after wading through the treacle of layered and often opaque bureaucracy.
The Coalition made a half-hearted effort at reform, generating a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, but this was quickly undermined by granting priority to ‘local considerations’, ensuring local plans trumped the presumption. This was great for fans of ‘Heritage Theme Park Britain’, people who list red phone boxes, those who regard any industry as dangerous to health or who count dirty fields filled with rusting farm equipment as part of “our precious green belt”.
It’s a disaster for young people who want to live in homes, the elderly who want to downsize, and everyone who wants a functioning economy. As a result, the UK cannot build airports and can only extract energy offshore. Oligarchs buy houses as capital assets, and far too much income is expended on rent and utilities. This is a result of political cowardice, and it needs to change.
To be fair to the politicians, fear of local people or ‘nimbyphobia’, is a rational motivation for anyone seeking election. You are not rewarded for the things you do right, such as improving a city centre, but you can be heavily punished for being brave and sensible. It is no one’s dream to live next door to a sewage works; but it is everyone’s dream to not wade through raw sewage on the way home. Squaring that circle is the job of planning.
Avoiding being caught doing it is the hobby of too many local politicians – a problem that has got worse in the last 40 years as politicians of all stripes (starting with the Liberal Democrats) weaponise community politics for national elections. This is why you find MPs making perfectly sensible speeches in Parliament about the need for jobs and growth, while simultaneously opposing anything happening in their own constituencies. You even find Green Party Councillors opposing solar farms these days. Perhaps they’ve finally discovered that the panels are not woven from organic hemp by indigenous vegan tribes; but stamped out at scale by vast Chinese corporations powered by coal. Or perhaps they’re just the same hypocrites as everyone else.
Proposals to relax planning rules on onshore wind and solar development, then, should be conditionally welcomed. These schemes should stand and fall at auction on their economic merits and contribution to energy security, not a pastoral fantasy of green fields. If the Government wishes to stack the grid with unreliable renewables to hit a Net Zero target, it will take some 10-15 per cent of the UK’s land area. Less if it gets on with nuclear, less expensively if it gets on with fracking.
And therein lies the condition on the welcome. Energy infrastructure is either all a national infrastructure priority or it isn’t. Picking winners is going to distort outcomes inefficiently, increasing the expense of the low carbon transition. The public could instead be offered real choices. There are areas for example that might prefer one 3.2GW nuclear power station covering a space used by two average-sized British farms, to a solar plant covering a space more than three times the size of Heathrow Airport. There are those that might prefer a fracking pad the size of Parliament Square, to renewables using up to ten times the space occupied by Hyde Park. Particularly given the former would gift them at least £100,000 per pad and 1 per cent for revenues to community works, while the latter will likely be subsidised through bills.
If the government doesn’t do that, the temporary and relative popularity of renewables, or at least that expressed by push polls from their lobby groups, will vanish again. Cameron ‘ditched the green crap’ because his party couldn’t stomach the local protests, particularly against onshore wind. That’s only changed due to the rule changes that have put most projects out of sight offshore.
But you still see it in mindless fights over interconnectors attempting to bring the power ashore, which also need regulatory reform to speed it up. Other changes might help, the community incentives required on onshore operators for fossil fuels might also be applied to low carbon projects.
In electricity market reform, a complex matter of regulations and grids, there is a lively debate about localising benefits rather than dispersing them. But nothing happens without planning reform. It’s time to “ditch the nimby crap”, stop planning and start building.