16 August 2022

There’s a simple solution to councils blocking infrastructure – overrule them


For a moment, I thought I had fallen into some sort of time warp. How else to greet the suggestion from the Daily Mail that the solution to Britain’s water woes could be something called ‘the Great Boris Canal’?

It couldn’t possibly be serious. Not now, not in the Year of Our Lord 2022. We all know Boris doesn’t build things. He’s an illusionist, and a very good one, constantly managing to harness the vibe of grands projets without ever actually building anything. Per the paper:

“…senior Tories say the idea – endorsed by Mr Johnson himself as London Mayor – could help the South and Midlands cope with future droughts. The plan, which was first put forward in the 1940s, involves creating a huge network of canals to bring water from the wetter North to drier regions further south.”

Cute! The bit about the timing of the endorsement is the icing on the cake. It’s an easy thing to endorse a major national water project when one is merely the Mayor of London – as easy, in fact, as backing a brand-new estuary airport as an alternative to expanding Heathrow or Gatwick.

One former City Hall aide explained to me once that ‘Boris Island’ was simply a way for Johnson to appear pro-growth whilst opposing everything practical, and I think it’s pretty much a all-purpose frame through which to analyse the Prime Minister’s various announcements. He’s had more than two years to break ground on the airport, or the canal, or the bridge to Ulster. And yet, nothing.

If this were just a matter of the big-name projects, it might be possible to write this off as a purely Johnsonian phenomenon. But he can’t shoulder all of the blame for the fact successive governments have failed to shoulder the responsibility to deliver adequate national infrastructure.

Last week, for example, Layla Moran had the dishonour to be Twitter’s main character for a day, after it turned out that she has been a vociferous opponent of the proposed Abingdon Reservoir which might, amongst other things, have avoided some villages in the county running out of running water.

Mocking the Liberal Democrats is fun, easy, and usually merited. But in this case, it really just puts a spotlight on a failure which ultimately belongs to the Government. It has had the power to authorise important national infrastructure projects under the Planning Act 2008. There is even a specific provision (s.27) for reservoirs over a minimum size – and the Abingdon Reservoir would have five times that minimum!

I’m as staunch a foe of the Nimbys as anyone. But we can’t really blame councils for not taking the national view, because that isn’t their job. Westminster should have stepped in and overruled local government, just as it should with the Ox-Cam Arc.

Even sticking to water, there are plenty of other examples of things we ought to have built by now. A temperate, rainy island ought to be aiming for abundance. Instead, we have Bristol Water scrapping a reservoir that actually got planning permission in favour of reducing leakage and ‘reducing demand’.

Meanwhile in Scotland, in a pound-shop recreation of Germany’s lunatic decision to shutter its nuclear plants after Fukushima, local government vetoed proposals to build a reservoir to power a hydro-electric plant (‘up to 300 jobs and 400MW of clean energy’, according to the Times) because a completely different dam failed in Derbyshire, and the relevant councillor couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The net result of all this is that this country hasn’t opened a new reservoir since before I was born.

Perhaps the urgency of the crisis will break the logjam. Perhaps we’ll now see the Government calling in and approving vital projects. But the odds are surely slim. For those projects will need to be built in constituencies held by Tory MPs, and those MPs will probably whine about it. 

Ministers should not listen. Local residents’ groups are even freer than councils to complain that this or that project is inconvenient or inaesthetic. But they simply should not get a veto on whether or not something a broad swath of the country needs is built. Their little patch of Britain does not exist for their benefit alone. 

The Government may never be able to lead the Vale of White Horse to water. But it can flood it.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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