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Protesters, lawyers and public servants make money from delay

My recent Times column on the planning paralysis holding back Britain:

At last, the government is about to decide on a third runway at Heathrow airport — by the end of this month, I hear. It’s only been ten years since Tony Blair’s government first proposed the plan. Yet it will be three years until planning permission is granted and another six before the runway is finished. That’s two decades. Heathrow’s original three runways in 1946 took less than two years to build from scratch in a war-ravaged country depleted of funds and fuel. Why do such projects now take so inordinately long?

Land-use planning in Britain is not a joke; it’s a disgrace. The present system is grotesquely biased, not so much in favour of opponents or proponents of development, but in favour of delay and cost. I happen to think HS2 and Hinkley Point C are mistakes, but if I’ve lost those battles — and I probably have — then at least let’s get on and build them quickly, rather than spend the next decade paying lawyers and consultants to slow them down and inflate their costs.

In the case of shale gas, nearly a decade after it first started applying to do so Cuadrilla is to be allowed to drill a single well in Fylde, Lancashire, under strict environmental conditions, using a technique — horizontal drilling and fracking — that has been tested tens of thousands of times in America with very few environmental problems. In that decade, America has used this technique to smash the oil and gas price, transform its economy and cut its carbon emissions. We’ve spent the decade in a futile attempt to placate a handful of implacable green fanatics.

It’s tempting to blame nimbyism. But in Lancashire the problem is the opposite of nimbyism. The inundating of local councillors came not from locals but from outsiders. According to council officers, of 13,448 objections received, fewer than one in ten were actual letters (as opposed to forms thrust in front of people by pressure groups, mainly Friends of the Earth) and fewer than one in seven came from Fylde. So just 2.9 per cent of the adult population of Fylde objected to shale gas drilling. Remember that next time the BBC starts bleating about “fierce local opposition”.

Planning paralysis is the product of a timid state. Our cowardly lion of a bureaucracy throws issue after issue into the long grass when confronted by the mice that roar. Today it faces the challenge of one-click techno-protesters in alliance with a resurgent, campaigning “charity” industry. That industry is full of businesses — for that is what they are — reliant on generating a constant stream of lividness to motivate giving and agitation. Some are huge conglomerate marketing models that pull in protest donations, private revenues and government grants.

The latest accounts of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds show that this anti-fracking, pro-wind farm protest group pulled in £137 million last year, £21 million from government grants. Yet it and other protest groups are unfettered by any meaningful accountability, while they routinely second their staff to government departments with the strategic purpose of knowing how to gain grants and orchestrate policy.


Whenever they fear that the Charity Commission might express concern, such pressure groups shift the campaign to limited companies outside the commission’s reach — Friends of the Earth’s lawyers are experts at this game. Just occasionally they collide with reality. This newspaper recently broke the news on how, after eight months of investigation into Friends of the Earth, the Advertising Standards Authority had come to the initial conclusion that the group’s claims on fracking were misleading statements that it had failed to substantiate.

Even with planning permission, Cuadrilla faces an uphill task. It and its suppliers have to run a gauntlet of “direct action” — in the form of threats, abuse and intimidation — with very little help from the police and courts. The publicity-hungry pressure groups will probably team up with publicity-hungry law firms to bring judicial review suits on behalf of a handful of objectors, forcing the company to make its case all over again. (Likewise with Heathrow, threatens Zac Goldsmith MP.) Because these suits are dressed up as environmental challenges, they almost always succeed in getting a cost-protection order from the court, so that even if they fail the company cannot recover its huge cost in defending itself against the claim.

Meanwhile, a citizen of Lancashire or Britain who likes the idea of affordable energy with a small environmental impact has no such weapon at his disposal. He can’t sue anybody. Officialdom has almost as big an incentive to delay as the protest industry. The ranks of planners, consultants, inspectors, lawyers and surveyors of bats and newts generally benefit from things taking longer. The taxpayer and consumer are largely unrepresented in the system.

I am not arguing that people be stopped from objecting to development. I am criticising the time and cost of planning indecisions. There’s a political theory to explain what has gone wrong, called “public choice theory”. It argues that people within public bodies may be partly motivated by the public good, but they are also — inevitably and not surprisingly — motivated by budget maximisation. The same is true for charities and pressure groups. And, for that matter, companies, but then everybody already knows that private firms are profit maximisers.

As C Northcote Parkinson might have put it (as an example of his eponymous law), the civil servant who delays a decision because he is inundated with protests, then pleads a backlog of work as a reason for needing a bigger budget and expanded team, is not being irrational; far from it. But nor is he taking decisions solely in the public interest. The protester whose actions lead to a goldmine of publicity and the besieged public servant who thereby gets a budget increase, and the lawyer who interrogates both in court — are all benefiting from delay.

If this government wants to govern it must grasp how this process works. The risk is not just that the state is ineffective but that it gets consumed. Like a caterpillar full of parasitic wasp larvae that will eat its vital organs last, Britain can still inch forward in the world economy despite its ridiculous planning system and its powerful protest industry. But not for ever. Somehow we have to rebalance the incentives in favour of faster and cheaper decision-making.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times