11 October 2022

How to defeat the anti-growth coalition


Liz Truss is absolutely right: growth is the only way to enable better jobs and public services, to let people live with dignity, and to ensure that our children are better off than we are. She is also right that growth is possible. There are smart ways to deliver what the Government wants quickly, if it resists the siren calls of delay and bureaucracy.

But on the path to growth, it’s important not to fall into traps laid by the anti-growth coalition. Recent debates around solar power and investment zones illustrate two of those traps: banning stuff nationally when it could simply be made subject to local consent, and writing cumbersome new legislation to do things that could be done faster and better using existing powers.

Ultimately, growth – increasing real incomes per head, taking proper account of environmental and other improvements, driven by increasing productivity per worker – is the only game in town if we want the future to be better than the past.

And reducing the accumulated burden of bureaucracy is one key way that we could deliver growth quickly across many sectors, while still protecting all that we hold dear. We could fix the terrible regulation that provides inadequate incentives for new energy infrastructure. We could fix the regulations that make our childcare so unaffordable. We could fix bureaucratic processes in planning that currently deliver neither growth nor what local people want.

On solar power, yesterday’s Guardian reports that the Prime Minister is being wooed by the forces of darkness. The Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, has been convinced that the correct thing to do during a global energy crisis and in the face of global warming is to increase the already huge area of land where solar power is banned nationally.

Luckily, this terrible idea from Jayawardena is being resisted by Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Cabinet figures who understand that security, prosperity and growth do actually require us to build something, somewhere.

We are also blessed to have a Housing Secretary, Simon Clarke, who is so good that he not only appreciates that win-win ways forward are possible, but he has also invented workable ways to find them. There are communities who would be very happy to have more solar farms near them, if only they shared some of the benefits.

Frustrating those communities by imposing an outright national ban on solar farming on even more farmland is not only short-sighted, but stupid. It is perfectly possible to continue many types of farming underneath solar panels. Preserving farmland is not a good reason to ban solar. And community concerns can be readily addressed by requiring community consent.

If we really must limit solar farms despite our crippling shortage of electricity and in the face of a changing climate, there is a better way forward. Instead of a rigid ban, we could simply remove the national presumption in favour of developing solar farms on the ‘Class 3b’ lower-grade farmland where Mr Jayawardena seeks to ban it.  Such a reform would ensure that local communities won’t see solar farms imposed on them by developers who appeal over their heads to the Planning Inspectorate, but would allow those communities who do want solar to accept deals where they share the benefits.

Moving on to investment zones, the anti-growth coalition has found its most cunning ruse yet. By insisting that the planning aspects of investment zones need still more planning legislation, the bureaucracy lobby has nearly succeeded in delaying investment zones until such a bill can be passed.

In fact investment zones could be introduced almost immediately, without the need for consultation and at the absolute discretion of the Secretary of State, using Special Development Orders. That legal power that has existed since 1971 and was used, for example, for the regeneration of Cardiff Bay – which permitted 14 million square feet of commercial development and nearly 6,000 homes.

The Prime Minister is right to promote the importance of growth. But priorities are useless without delivery. If she wants to deliver growth quickly, she should resist the dark arts of the anti-growth coalition and seize existing powers to boost development. There is no need to wait for an unpredictable Parliament. The best time to restart growth was 50 years ago. The second best time is not after yet more parliamentary process, but right now.

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John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.