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30 September 2023

The real reason Britain can’t build anything

From HS2 to housing shortages, we forget that two-thirds of the British population live on a quarter of the land.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a map doing the rounds on social media at the moment which shows the scale of Japan’s Shinkansen rail network: 2,800km of high-speed trains, a system so vast that, superimposed onto the UK, it stretches from somewhere east of Shetland to the northern edge of the Bay of Biscay. Beneath it, in the southern half of Great Britain, you can see the original Y-shaped plan for HS2, a tiny little stub by comparison.

We are struggling to build even that. Rishi Sunak, a man who gives the impression that he wakes up screaming after nightmares about being forced to travel by train, lopped off the eastern arm, to the East Midlands, Yorkshire and points north, while he was chancellor. This, to nobody’s surprise, made the business case for the new line weaker, so now he’s talking about cutting the Birmingham to Manchester leg and the last five miles to London, too. Once upon a time this country built the first railway network in the world. Now it is taking us multiple decades and tens of billions of pounds to build a line that runs from Birmingham to not-quite-London, and we have less high speed rail infrastructure than almost any other country in Europe. Something, surely, has gone wrong.

All this is just one aspect of a far bigger problem: Britain seems increasingly unable to build anything much. Our failure to build enough houses has been documented to the point of tedium, but this decades’ long failure now means we are all paying more money for less space, with a drag effect on everything from consumer spending to savings. To bring us up to the average European number of homes per capita, the Centre for Cities recently estimated, we would need another 4.3 million homes: “This housing deficit would take at least half a century to fill even if the government’s current target to build 300,000 homes a year is reached.” It does not, on present trajectories, seem likely to be.

Meanwhile, this country has some of the greatest universities in the world, but is prevented from making full use of their research by the fact that the cities they are in can offer a mere fraction of the lab space their peers in Massachusetts or California take for granted. Wind and solar farms are frequently seen not as vital green infrastructure but a blight on the landscape, including on occasion by local politicians standing for the actual Green Party. (It largely, to be fair, opposes HS2 as well, so is at least consistent.) And despite our climate the south and east of England are in danger of water shortages – partly because privatised water firms haven’t done enough to fix leaks, yes, but also because local nimbys have made it impossible to turn farmland into new reservoirs.

Britain clearly never used to have this problem: in the century and a half after 1760 we built first canals, and then railways, spread to every corner of the land. The relative lack of inconvenient things like mass property rights and democracy no doubt made this easier, but in the mid 20th century both millions upon millions of new homes and an extensive road network were built quickly, too.

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But then, somehow, things ground to a halt. As far back as 1990, just a couple of years after the environment secretary Nicholas Ridley first popularised the acronym nimby (“not in my back yard”), the Centre for Policy Studies published a report bemoaning the country’s failure to keep up with either French motorway construction or British housing demand. This, it warned, would impose “costs […] that are now beginning to affect the wider economy”. It has.

[See also: The deadly cost of nimbyism]

Why do we find it so much harder to build in this country than comparable countries? The obvious culprit is a planning system designed to prioritise objections over permissions, and which benefits existing local homeowners over a wider community who may stand to gain. Throw in the fact that those who have time to campaign on planning issues tend to be older, richer and have less stake in growth, and nature has run its course.

The Treasury is no doubt another factor. It has long focused more on liabilities than assets, and prefers restricting current spending to investing for growth. (Even before George Osborne arrived and made everything worse, it seemed genuinely to have an institutional belief that it is better to have £1 today than £3 tomorrow.) Its obsessive need to control the purse strings is a drag on growth, too: councils have no money for things like local transport networks, and why should they allow housing development when they know that more people will just mean more costs, while the actual financial benefits flow straight past them to the Treasury?

These systems, though, are reflections of wider politics, so other factors are clearly at play, too. An electoral system based entirely on geographic constituencies is warped by the same incentives as planning. This is why Greens campaign against green projects, as if they’ve taken the name literally and think the job is to protect every individual blade of grass not the environment as a whole, while the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey tried and failed this week to drop the party’s housebuilding target and thus make it slightly less embarrassing to run the nimby campaigns his candidates will inevitably end up running anyway. More than all that, while both right and left may bemoan our inability to build – as shown by my quoting a policy paper from Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think tank a few paragraphs back – they frequently disagree wildly on the matter of exactly what to build, not to mention where. The result, inevitably, is impasse.

For all these things, though, I wonder if there’s a simpler explanation for our physical stagnation, too. France has near enough the same population as the UK in a patch of land comfortably over twice the size. Even that understates the difference, however, because a sizeable chunk of our population is located in a rough parallelogram bounded by Dover, Bournemouth, Blackpool and York. The result is that something like two-thirds of the British population live on just a quarter of the country’s land, a region with a population density higher than any country in Europe that isn’t a microstate, and five times that of France.

This is not to suggest we are full up, and don’t have the land to build: we’re not and we do. (Honestly, something like a fifth of the land in Greater London itself is green belt; we have the space.) But I can’t help but wonder if this might be another reason it’s been easier to build things like high-speed railways and motorways across France than it is here.

This government has talked a lot about “the blob” and the “anti-growth alliance”, mysterious groups dedicated to holding Britain back by not just being good and voting Tory. The thing about the blob, though, is that it absorbs everything it touches. So what if all of us were the anti-growth alliance, all along?

[See also: How Conservative complacency left schools to rot]

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