The Times by Emma Duncan
he Dartford Crossing, as anybody who uses it regularly will agree, is an arterial section of the seventh circle of hell. In order to mitigate the torture it inflicts on those who depend on it, National Highways, the agency charged with building big roads, wants to dig another tunnel, known as the Lower Thames Crossing. In 2017 it submitted a planning application. In 2020, the planning inspectorate demanded more information, so the application was resubmitted. According to the publication New Civil Engineer, it is now 63,000 pages long. The process has taken five and a half years and cost the taxpayer £267 million. That’s just for starters: the inspectors haven’t even begun their examination of the application.
The news this week that the government is to lift the ban on onshore wind farms is encouraging for those who despair of its generally wimpish attitude towards Nimbys, but by itself this shift will achieve nothing. That’s because the system for approving any wind farms — or roads, grid infrastructure and any other big kit we need — is gummed up.
Britain’s infrastructure is in a shameful state. A global league table puts our rail infrastructure at 29th place, below Indonesia and India; our road quality is 37th, below Slovenia and Ecuador; our airport infrastructure is 38th, below Turkey and Morocco. The transition to net zero requires a great deal of investment in the energy sector. John Pettigrew, chief executive of National Grid, says: “We will need to build about seven times as much infrastructure in the next seven or eight years as we built in the last 32.” This urgency is not, so far, reflected in the workings of the planning system.
The planning process was supposedly sorted out after the ridiculous business of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which took eight years and cost around £80 million to get approved. The Planning Act, which came into effect in 2008, created a new system that allowed “nationally significant infrastructure projects” to bypass local authorities. National Policy Statements on renewables, nuclear, roads, water and suchlike were introduced to make clear what infrastructure the country needed.
It worked well to start with. A new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point was approved swiftly, as was the Thames Tideway Tunnel. But over time the system seized up. The nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C use similar designs and are similarly located next to existing power stations. Yet EDF was required to submit 1,001 documents to the planning inspectorate for Hinkley C and 4,378 for Sizewell C, which came nine years later. Britain Remade, a pro-growth campaign group, crunched these numbers and discovered the average number of planning documents for an infrastructure application tripled in the eight years to 2020.
As the planning process has grown increasingly lengthy and expensive, so judicial review — the process through which campaigners can get the courts to stop projects — is getting more frequent, and the antis are succeeding more often. Between 2010 and 2020, there were no successful judicial reviews against a decision to grant consent. Since 2020, there have been four.
There seem to be two culprits. The first is the proliferation of green policies and regulations, which create new hurdles. Orsted, the Danish company building Hornsea 3, a wind farm off the Yorkshire coast, was required to commission 13 wildlife studies, including into the impact it might have on the hazel dormouse, the red squirrel and freshwater pearl mussel — none of which, according to said studies, are found in the areas affected by either the wind farm or the transmission cable. Each new such requirement increases costs.
The second culprit is the politicians. The government is supposed to update its National Policy Statements to take into account new policies and changing priorities. It’s not happening. The NPS on electricity generation, for instance, was published in 2011 and assumed that coal was still a significant contributor. As the row over the government’s decision to approve a new coalmine has underlined, that’s difficult to reconcile with net zero.
Political instability makes this tricky. Civil servants were all set to update the green energy NPS according to the pro-solar preferences of Boris Johnson’s government. Then during the Tory leadership campaign it became clear Rishi Sunak opposed solar farms. Now nobody knows what to do.
Uncertainty caused by out-of-date NPSs creates opportunities for campaign groups that want to block projects. Fear of judicial review encourages paperwork, as lawyers try to make a case watertight. More paperwork and a greater risk of rejection push up costs, which means less infrastructure — and less growth.
Solving this is going to get harder. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill requires the current level of environmental protection, which Britain inherited from the EU, to be exceeded or maintained. The EU, meanwhile, is going in the opposite direction, loosening its regulations to encourage the building of green-energy infrastructure. “We’re becoming more EU than the EU,” says Mustafa Latif-Aramesh, a planning lawyer with the firm BDB Pitmans. I doubt this was what Brexiteers, determined to unchain Britain from growth-stifling European bureaucracy, intended.
This problem is self-inflicted and soluble. Our politicians can update the NPSs and avoid enacting laws that gum the system up further. The question is whether we really want to make this country better, or are quite comfortable leaving the residents of Kent and east London to fester in transport hell. Recent evidence points to the latter.