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Matt Ridley: Britain Has Become A Nation Paralysed By Protest

Matt Ridley, The Times

Charities, civil servants and lawyers are an unholy alliance working to delay any project from getting off the ground

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.

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. […]

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.

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