Planning for growth…
It is party conference season in the UK with Bournemouth, Liverpool, and Manchester the nexus of political discourse, vanity, and hot air.
Prime Minister Sunak managed to speak without referencing the multiple car crash of his previous two predecessors, arguably four, something that Labour will not avoid in never-ending renditions of thirteen years of Tory rule. Meanwhile, the Liberals will talk largely meaningless guff that makes sensitive, nice folks feel good without having any responsibility whatsoever.
One theme pervades these plastic sessions, that is economic growth. All politicians crave such a mantra, not unreasonably, as it not only helps to deliver another electoral victory, their single purpose in life, but as an aside, can help the welfare of the nation and its citizens.
The UK has been the producer of rather anaemic economic growth in recent years, ebbing and flowing versus its G7 peers. Even this economic metric has been politicised though in the tiresome nay boring debate around everything revolving around Brexit. So, prior to a recent ONS admission that it underestimated UK GDP by some margin since 2020, we had Remoaners never-endingly stating that the UK’s relative underperformance was all down to Brexit, they have been forced to shut up as it is actually the case the UK outperformed France, Germany and Japan since 2020, whilst Little England Brexiteers struggle to identify any economic benefit as a result of leaving the EU apart from we are in control of our own destiny.
Business in Britain has done remarkably well, to its credit, to navigate the choppy waters of the geopolitical, bio security and macroeconomic world. However, growth could be so much easier, so much faster, so much more productive if the supply side processes in the country were more effective, or perhaps another way of putting it, so less stupid.
One core area where change is so necessary is the planning regime. It is slow, costly, more often than not irrational and ineffective. It is under resourced but also subject to extensive and repeated insanity. I have written before about the abuse of power displayed by Minister Gove on single handedly turning down the application for a major development of Oxford Street by Marks & Spencer, even after the support of an independent inspector; this decision is now subject to Judicial Review.
Recently, I heard of a farmer, wanting to explore wind energy, who had to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a twelve-month bird study, where someone rocks up every day to observe birds on his farm. Such observation is set against scant evidence of mass bird mortality in the UK from wind turbines, data analytics will show that; an atrocious waste to time and money – the stuff of Monty Python.
Further up the food chain, a major manufacturer is spending millions of pounds on their planning application alone, a process that is likely to take approaching two years. In that time the firm could decide to move on, denying major investment in the food system, advances in food technology, more efficient and better-quality products for the market, and additional job creation. There are myriad other stories out there that make the blood boil with no release.
Such investment, competitiveness, is at the heart of economic growth. And yet it is being stymied by structural failure from local nimbies and crazy, admittedly often under resourced local planning offices, to incompetent Ministers. No one would suggest it is clever not to have a rigorous planning process, certainly one that lacks transparency in a locality. The present system, however, is broken and needs a structural rethink, better resourcing, and a requirement to make economic growth a virtue that needs to be considered in the rounds. Otherwise, the UK will plan its way to relative and absolute economic decline.
It would be helpful if the next UK General Election considers planning alongside other key supply side enablers, one where the largest industry in the land, the food system, should be upfront and central.
Dr Clive Black