The planning system is holding growth back – and must be made to let go

ConservativeHome by Sam Richards

Britain built the world’s first railway, the world’s first coal-fired power station, and the world’s first commercial nuclear power station. This strength in innovation and industry made us, for a time, the richest country on the planet.

This is not just a feature of our past – off the coast of Yorkshire will soon sit the world’s single largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea Three. Once operational, Hornsea Three will have the capacity to power over half of Yorkshire’s homes. It will also support thousands of high-skilled, local manufacturing jobs, including 750 in a world-class factory in Teesside. In short, it is levelling up in action.

Yet Hornsea Three also tells another story – of a dysfunctional planning system that underpins our current economic crisis. Households are struggling to pay their bills due to high global gas prices, yet the rollout of cheaper domestic alternatives such as wind and solar has been held up by planning bottlenecks.

Hornsea 3 almost didn’t happen. In fact, the planning authorities recommended refusal before finally being overturned by the Government. To secure approval, the developer, Ørsted, submitted over 1,400 separate documents. This is nothing compared to new nuclear, with Sizewell C providing over 4,300 – at a total page count of 44,260.

In theory, it should take 18 or so months to get a planning decision for a major infrastructure project such Hornsea Three. But in this case, it took more than 30 months. It could be ready to provide clean cheap, British power this winter – but in part due to our planning system, it won’t be.

It’s not just energy where the planning system holds us back – in transport, housing – right across the British economy it’s too hard to build anything. The result is our bills are higher, housing less affordable, and we lose out on the good jobs that come with building new infrastructure and new industries.

The OBR confirmed last week that disposable incomes are set to fall by more than seven per cent over the next two years, in real terms. The pre-financial crisis model that leant heavily on financial services is no longer delivering the productivity growth that makes us all better off. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen the slowest economic growth of any decade since the Industrial Revolution. We need to get building. There was little in the Autumn Statement that addressed this fundamental issue.

It’s true that many of the problems we face are not unique to Britain. It’s as hard, if not harder, to build new homes in San Francisco as it is in London. European countries are as, if not more, reliant on imported fossil fuels from authoritarian regimes.

Yet the tough truth is we are slipping further behind comparable countries. The typical British family is now £6,800 worse off than a German family, £13,500 worse off than an American family, and on current trends will be poorer than a Polish family by the early 2030s.

This economic stagnation breeds instability in our politics – in no small part underpinning the vote to leave the European Union, and the political turmoil of recent years and months, was the sense that the British economy no longer delivers a decent quality of life for large parts of the country.

That’s why I’ve set up a new organisation – Britain Remade – a campaign that aims to give a voice to people from around the country who are desperate for change but feel ignored by Westminster.

I’ve spent the last three months meeting with businesses and speaking to people in pubs across the country. Every conversation I open with the same question “Do you think the country is going in the right direction?”

Out of hundreds of answers only one person has said yes, and that was a reaction to the recent removal of a Prime Minister. This deep frustration will come as little surprise – but alongside it does sit a strong sense of pride. A pride that we once led the world in innovation and new industries – and a hope that we could do again.

Changing planning rules is of course far easier said than done – and is only part of what needs doing. But there are straightforward, if not simple, fixes like streamlining environmental impact assessments so they do not stretch to 10,000 pages, as they do currently, for renewable projects that can make all of us better off.

Too often politicians listen to the vocal minority who want to block new infrastructure, new industries, and new ideas. But if we can build a large enough movement we can make sure Westminster hears the voices of those who support building new clean energy, new homes, new roads and new railways. Those who want to get Britain back to what we’re good at.