6 June 2024

Let’s get Britain building again


The modern world was made in Britain. From the first steam engine and railway to splitting the atom and the first commercial nuclear power station, Britain was a nation of builders. Yet instead of continuing this proud tradition, we’ve stopped. Britain hasn’t built a new nuclear power station in 29 years and has not built a new reservoir in more than 30. 

Many of our current challenges, from sky-high energy bills and steep rents to sluggish wages and not enough money for public services have a common cause: Britain isn’t building enough. However, this stagnation and decline isn’t inevitable. It doesn’t have to take 13 years to build a new offshore wind farm while families struggle with their bills. New railways, trams and roads don’t have to cost up to 10 times more in Britain than in other European countries. Brits shouldn’t have to pay more per head on housing than other European countries just to get older, colder, and smaller homes.

That’s why Britain Remade has launched our plan, ‘Back to What We’re Good At’.

The planning system holds back investment into new cheap, renewable energy sources, right when families are struggling to pay their bills. Developers of new wind and solar projects have to complete long planning applications and then face years of delay and uncertainty to get a yes-no answer. 

Sunnica Solar Farm on the Suffolk-Cambridgeshire border will power 172,000 homes when built. Nearly three years ago, Sunnica’s developers submitted a planning application that was 69,173 pages long, including an environmental statement that ran to 14,557 pages across 398 documents. Yet after all those pages and all that time, they are still waiting for a decision. 

Spain has a solution. Britain should adopt the Spanish policy of exempting most solar and onshore wind projects from the requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment in areas of low biodiversity. We should also drop the costly requirement for solar farms to dig massive archaeological trenches since scanning technology can be used instead to identify if any artefacts are present.

Britain is the most expensive country in the world to build new nuclear power stations. Hinkley Point C is expected to cost more than six times more per megawatt than South Korean plants. A big reason for this high cost is that the Office for Nuclear Regulation required 7,000 design changes to be made to an already safe design that was under construction in France and Finland. 

To fix this, the next government should automatically approve designs approved by trusted regulators in the US and EU. That would mean South Korea’s safe and cheap APR-1400 design, which has been approved by the US and EU, would not have to go through the standard four-year-long approval process.

Our failure to build can be felt within cities and towns across the country. Only nine British cities have a tram or metro; in France, there are 30 such systems running across its cities and towns. In Germany, there are 60. One large issue that is holding us back is the requirement for local transport projects to overcome national approval hurdles, which can take up to four years, and then approach the Treasury for funding.

French mayors can propose, fund, and build a tram network within their six-year term, yet our centralised approval and funding process means British trams take more than a decade. Britain Remade’s plan would devolve the current slow and burdensome Transport and Works Act Order process to metro mayors, who better know what their areas need. We also suggest empowering city regions to fund new transport infrastructure locally through capturing business rates, stamp duty and council tax uplifts. To provide more funding options, we should look at the French Versement Transport, and enable metro mayors to levy an extra penny on employer’s national insurance, ring fenced for new transport infrastructure.

Britain’s failure to build more houses has crushed the dream of home-ownership. In 1991, 67% of 25-34 year olds owned their own home. Today, it’s less than 40%. We need to build more new homes in our best-connected areas. When Auckland, New Zealand reformed its planning rules to automatically approve any building up to six-storeys high in city centres or near transit stops, there was a housing boom and rents fell by a third. We should adopt a similar policy for our most expensive cities, as long as there is no net loss of green space, new housing is built to high energy-efficiency standards and new buildings match a design code developed with local residents. If the fall in rents by a third was repeated in London, the average couple would save £6,000 per year.

Slashing the red tape that stops Britain building should be a priority for the next government. Britain Remade’s plan ‘Back to What We’re Good At’, provides more than 60 policy ideas to make Britain a country of builders again.

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Ben Hopkinson is Policy Researcher at Britain Remade.

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