Time for Britain to become a nation of builders once more

23 November, 2023

i News, by By Sebastian Payne

 

What is the most profoundly depressing document in Britain today? Not Nigel Farage’s invoice for his stint in the jungle or a list of the recent Christmas number ones (all by LadBaby, if you happen to care). It was, in fact, published as part of the plethora of paperwork in this week’s Autumn Statement and captured precisely why Britain’s economic growth is not what it should be. “Getting Great Britain building again” is both a damning diagnosis and a bullish blueprint for how we can become a nation of builders once more.


Nearly all of the focus has been on Jeremy Hunt’s personal tax-cutting spree, which has targeted workers who need help the most. It has, for now, placated MPs concerned about the cost of living burden. Yet the most exciting announcements are all about business and investment. No one should be satisfied with the prospect of 0.7 per cent growth next year when there is so much untapped potential. The British economy is still living with long Covid, but the more immediate challenge is building.


This Government document hails Britain’s successes with new roads, wind turbines and fibre cables over the past decade. It goes on to set out much more to come, with £600bn of investment in infrastructure in the pipeline – much of it for the critical power lines to boost wind and solar power for hitting our net zero targets. As the Energy Secretary, Claire Coutinho, noted at this year’s Conservative Party Conference: “I have 99 problems and they’re all the grid.”


The challenge is not intent but practice: we are struggling to actually build anything any more and “Getting Great Britain building again” sets out why. The approval process has become lethargic, with large projects taking four years to be given the green light. Some applications are generating tomes of bumf. As the Government puts it, “if a planning officer spent every minute of a 37.5 hour working week reading a 90,000 page application, it would take roughly 395 working days to read it all.” The environmental impact assessment alone for the Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk was 30 times longer than the complete works of Shakespeare.


Then there are legal challenges: half of projects deemed nationally significant infrastructure have faced successful and unsuccessful threats, delaying them by one year even if they still go ahead. Whether it is panels or pylons, the power of judicial review is killing the economy. The result is that infrastructure is just too expensive.


As the Britain Remade campaign group has found, British underground rail projects are twice as expensive as those in Italy, three times more expensive than Spain; tram projects are 2.5 times more expensive than in France. The sorry state of HS2 tells the story itself. Britain, overall, is the third most expensive place in the world to build new transport infrastructure.


Michael Gove is hoping to slash the thicket. Alongside the Autumn Statement, his Levelling Up department set out a range of measures to approve projects more quickly and, to use a cliché, get spades in the ground – from looking to curb inappropriate legal challenges to a new “star chamber” at the heart of government to drive through key projects, such as critical nuclear power plants. With staging posts in spring, summer and the end of 2024 to reshape how we build, it is to be hoped this plan will result in a streamlined planning and approval system.

The other stimulating measure for growth was business tax. Ahead of this week, more than 200 companies, the CBI, Make UK (and my think-tank, Onward) called for “full expensing” to be made permanent – allowing companies to write off investment in physical equipment against tax. It was initially introduced as a temporary measure to boost investment. Now, the “single most transformational” option to ramp up growth has been made permanent. Hunt called it the largest business tax cut in British history, and he was not overselling.


These measures might sound finicky in the face of the great challenges we face – not least how to wrestle migration back down to sustainable levels without tarnishing growth. And it is true that inflation is pulling people into higher tax brackets, the so-called “fiscal drag”. But too often our economic and policy debate focuses on the large challenges and not enough on the smaller and specific ones. The only way we can get the economy growing is to do the hard, very difficult yards to get building.


Some see a battle taking place within conservatism on this, between the instincts of preserving the environment versus boosting the economy and providing the tools for individuals to thrive. The two camps are often siloed as the Nimbys (not in my backyard) against the Yimbys (yes in my backyard). For most Conservatives, however, there is no competition between the two. It is wholly possible to build more homes, industry and infrastructure while preserving our natural inheritance, if done in a sensible and sustainable way.


In recent years, instincts have shifted too much in favour of saying no instead of yes. Too many projects have been scuppered by those fearful of a local backlash against the national need. The Autumn Statement suggests we may have passed peak Nimby within the Conservative Party and that the focus is shifting towards those who are more inclined to build.


The solution is not to concrete over every corner of our green and pleasant land. It is an acceptance that, to prosper as a country, we need the right apparatus in the right place. So, let’s crack on.