A Whitehall overhaul could get Britain building again

Written by Sean Worth on 26 July 2015 in Opinion
BIS, DEFRA, DECC and the Department for Transport should be merged into a single new department to create a streamlined national infrastructure function

Imagine the scene: ministers announce urgently-needed housebuilding projects, which inevitably upset a few locals once the first site is identified. Before mediation even begins, however, someone senses that cash can be made from a legal dispute and sets up an online campaign group to enflame opposition. It soon attracts the attention of ‘anti-capitalist’ types, looking for their next random cause, and hordes converge on the site. Their lurid protests attract national news and once-supportive local politicians shrink away. The project collapses, mired in legal timewasting.

It sounds like an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, but unfortunately is the way we allow decisions to proceed in this country over even the most essential infrastructure projects.

Enter George Osborne, a man on a mission to change all that and get Britain building again. He wants major new housing and infrastructure developments begun in this parliament. The question is, can he deliver?

Tomorrow, the Westminster Policy Institute publishes a report looking at some of the most controversial developments, including housing projects, energy installations and new airport capacity, asking how government can overcome the difficulty of getting projects approved.

It looks at the scale of our problem in the UK. Air, road and rail travel will increase by at least another third over the next two decades, and we need 230,000 net additional dwellings each year to meet housing demand. We are at present nowhere near to accommodating these needs, which is holding back our economy and damaging the living standards of people across the country.

One of the first things we find is that local opposition is usually way over-hyped. While media reporting naturally reflects the loudest voices, there is often a silent majority who welcome development or are at least neutral. Take the current row over expanding airport capacity, for example. Heathrow, which appears to be the most locally-controversial option, in fact has far more local support than opposition, including in nine of the ten closest constituencies.

Then we find evidence that local opposition is reduced dramatically if the initial pitch is right. In shale gas projects, for example, which seem to be the most controversial among current energy plans, we found the most ‘noise’ comes from environmentalists, not locals, and of people who oppose fracking near them, a proposal of cash compensation significantly reduces this. The same is true for large housing developments, where such incentives greatly increase support.

The lesson for government is not, however, to simply bulldoze projects through and pay locals to shut them up. Underpinning much local opposition is objection to diktat from distant bureaucrats in central government, but we need a way of gaining local approval without allowing a tiny minority a veto on projects of essential national strategic importance.

To find the answer, there first needs to be a tidy-up at Whitehall. November’s spending review will take £20bn out of departments and there is a clear case to rationalise those with cross-cutting economic and infrastructure responsibilities. BIS, DEFRA, Transport and DECC could be merged into a single new department, or their infrastructure responsibilities at least centralised in the Treasury, to create a streamlined function for setting national infrastructure strategy and funding.

The actual implementation of projects of national strategic importance, however, should be devolved to city regions under the power of locally-elected Mayors.  This office is higher-level than a council, so will not run in fear from micro-opposition, but is far more locally-accountable than Whitehall, so better placed to improve local buy-in.

Mayors would then be given powers to work with contractors and planners to find the best means locally to boost support, such as creating funds for cash payments to residents or community investment. Importantly, they would also have the power to hold referenda over disputed projects, allowing everyone in a region, not just the most vocal opponents, to have their say over big projects.

For local projects not of strategic national importance, Neighbourhood Plans would still act as a powerful means to give residents a say on the implications of smaller-scale developments.

Devolving major decisions in this way would prevent a loud minority blocking infrastructure investment while also giving everyone affected an equal right to have their say. It is an approach that would help government achieve the rapid progress on building that this country so desperately needs.

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