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Is Britain closed for business?

New development is being strangled by red tape

Artillery Row

Various infrastructure projects of national significance have been either thwarted or put on hold, amidst the paralysing use of legislative tripwires. Red tape even wraps itself around small innocuous planning applications — especially so when applications relate to domestic dwellings and buildings that are listed. This extends to mundane properties, in themselves of no great architectural or historical significance, that happen to be located in a Conservation area. These designated areas are commonplace within many of our towns, cities and villages.

The Examination Library alone consists of 295 pages with hyperlinks

Let me start with the householder, and I offer first-hand experience. I have two properties I call home: one in my constituency and a listed property closer to London, from which I travel in during the Parliamentary week for Westminster duties. There are 1980s windows, probably off the shelf from a builders’ merchant of the time, in a later extension to the property built in the 1930s — installed prior to my ownership but, as is the way with softwood, now way past their prime and rotting badly in places. Being a dutiful Member of Parliament, mindful of planning law and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Listed Properties, it is only right and proper for me to make the appropriate Listed Property application to the local authority to change them. As it’s an historic property, I’d want appropriate wooden windows, constructed bespokely, that would be in keeping with the character and infinitely better both aesthetically and for security than the existing.

Simple, one would think? How wrong one can be. The local authority requires site maps, elevation drawings, detailed drawings of the existing windows, detailed drawings and full construction blueprints of the proposed replacements down to the type, colour and design of the window latches, a heritage statement and lots of photographs. Obviously beyond my capability, so an architect and planning agent has been appointed. Cost for the planning application, alone to replace rotten 1980s windows with bespoke and in keeping new wooden ones: £4,000, plus the VAT at 20 per cent for HM Treasury, of course.

I am the Chairman of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Conservative MPs. I’m critical of the path to Net Zero, and I am trying to get answers from various Government departments on seemingly straightforward questions: what will it cost, are proposed measures achievable, are they practical, how do the measures affect those on lower income and is there a better way? Never mind the question of how much “global boiling” (in the hyperbolic, if not infantilising words of Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations) will be prevented by banning new boilers and cars in the UK, which emits a mere one per cent of global CO2. All the while China, India, Indonesia and other growing nations with domestic fossil fuel availability, mainly coal, simply look the other way.

On the back of high electricity prices and low return on capital (this was a year ago), even this sceptic looked at the potential for solar panels, which could be placed entirely invisibly on the roof. Let’s not forget, these are not permanent structures and could be removed in a day. A quick calculation, when interest rate returns were less than one per cent, put the £9,000 project for the house into the realms of a reasonable investment, a positive return on capital. Advice from the planning agent, once more with the cost of — you guessed it, drawings, drone obtained photographs, heritage and environmental statements blah, blah, blah as Greta Thunberg might say — calls it £4,000, plus £800 of VAT for HM Treasury. I don’t think I’ll bother, thank you very much. We’ll continue with grid supplied electricity and just turn a few lights off from time to time.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. Now to major projects of national significance. Such projects take the planning decision away from local planning authorities, because of their size and complexity, and into the realms of Planning Inspectorate (PINS) who report to the Secretary of State for the final decision. This process, quite common, is known as a Development Consent Order (DCO).

Let us examine the Sizewell C Nuclear Power station planning process, available in detail on the website. This is a 3.2GW new nuclear power station, planned for the Suffolk coast, of a design closely following the Hinkley Point C. Such power stations will be fundamental to any achievable Net Zero ambition. The problem is that we’d need about 70 of them.

The examination processes by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Environment Agency (EA) are available, and together they form the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process. The ONR reports amount to 68 reports, totalling 1,895 pages. The Environment Agency’s assessments amount to 41 different reports across 1,727 pages. Then the Planning Inspectorate had their say. The Examination Library alone consists of 295 pages with hyperlinks to representations from the public and interested bodies; the RSPB response runs to 41 pages. The site flood risk assessment comes in at 349 pages. The totality of these documents across the 295 pages of hyperlinks, I have to admit I haven’t counted, but it must be in excess of 20,000 pages across hundreds of reports and submissions. That is just the start, as the timeline of documents from June 2020 to decision of July 2022 accumulate, with the Planning Inspectorate’s Findings and Conclusions documents of 25 February 2022 weighing in at 1,506 pages. The Habitats Regulation assessment is 218 pages long, and the Statutory Instrument of the Development Consent Order that finally emerged on 20 July 2022 reached a not insubstantial 200 pages, amending prior legislation as obscure as the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act 1847 to the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, with lots more in between.

During the same period, China built 48 new airports and improved 60 more

Despite hundreds of millions expended in the process, and a process spanning 14 years, the Planning Inspectorate recommended refusal with Retained EU Law at its core under the Water Framework Directive, the Air Quality Directive, the Habitats Regulations, Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations, with reference even to the Equality Act 2010 and the Climate Change Act 2008. Nonetheless, then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng gave consent for the DCO, offering a green light for judicial review. The campaign group Together Against Sizewell C lost a judicial review application in August 2022. The group claimed that the Secretary of State had not adequately considered alternative solutions in meeting the UK’s Net Zero targets. It launched an appeal against the High Court decision. On 18 September 2023, it was successful in petitioning the High Court that a further judicial review hearing should be held on the narrow issue of water supply.

This multiple year and labyrinthine process would have to be followed for each and every Small Modular Reactor — the new hope for rapid nuclear rollout.

As for HS2, an analysis would show a similar story, with tens of thousands of documents and hundreds of millions of pounds expended in the process, with little to show besides cost escalations and pretty plans. An additional downstream Thames crossing was first conceived in the Roads to Prosperity white paper in 1989. £800m in design and consultation has been spent to date, and the project remains stalled.

More relevant to my constituency and East Kent has been the Manston airport saga. The airport closed in 2014. It has been subject to one DCO that was withdrawn by the Secretary of State in February 2021, following legal action by local anti-airport campaigners. It was approved again in August 2022, with reasons strengthened against the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation for refusal. Subject to a failed judicial review application in January 2023, by campaigners on environmental grounds under the Climate Change Act 2008, but with a subsequent appeal allowed against the decision in March 2023, it was finally refused again on 22 September 2023. The campaigners are considering their options for a further appeal. The airport remains closed, despite its owners wishing to invest £500m locally.

As a nation, we have bound ourselves in so much conflicting legislation, offering routes for legal challenge opened up by climate change commitments, one wonders if we are close to being simply closed for business.

During the period of Manston’s closure, China has built 48 new airports and improved 60 more. It has doubled its nuclear power output since 2014, and it has 24 new plants under construction. It is currently rolling out the new Linglong-1 Small Modular Reactor. Meanwhile, we create artists’ impressions of what might have been in a Britain that no longer works.

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