At the start of the pandemic, China built a hospital in double-quick time and we all thought, “that’s why they are so good at economic growth”. Then Britain did the same, proving we can do it too. Medical devices have been rushed through the approval process in days. Vaccine development is being brilliantly accelerated. We have shown we can do things quickly. Why can’t we do the same in ordinary times?
Like every small business owner, I find that quangos always take far, far longer than they need over decisions.
A local river trust cleaning out an old fish-pass on a river took several months to get approval from the Environment Agency; the work took one day. An attempt to turn derelict farm buildings into shops has so far taken local planning officials seven years to (not yet) decide.
Getting permission to extend a track by a hundred yards took Natural England many months of hesitation and several site visits.
The problem that faces firms up and down the country is not that regulators say no, but that they take an age to say yes. A local firm has been trying to start a project that would bring 200 good jobs and millions of pounds of tax revenue. It has been through planning permission, an inquiry, an appeal and a court case – winning at every stage. It was promised a ministerial decision last June and is still waiting, five years after applying.
From Heathrow Airport’s new runway to notifying you of a medical test result, everything seems to take far longer than necessary.
For private enterprise, time is money; delay can be lethal. Companies like Amazon, for all their faults, recognise this and promise you rapid delivery. For the public sector, there is no urgency. If the rules state that you must receive a reply within three weeks, then lo and behold, the reply arrives after three weeks, never two.
It can take up to six years to get a medical device – a new and faster diagnostic test for viruses, say – licensed in most European countries, including this one. Entrepreneurs cannot wait that long; their money runs out. We will never know how many innovations such delays have deterred, but they are surely one of the main reasons we were not better prepared for this pandemic.