20 November 2022

Weekly Briefing: Welcome to Wait Britain


If we’re being generous, Jeremy Hunt made the best of a very bad hand with this week’s Autumn Statement.

To quote Tom Clougherty’s piece on Thursday, the overall package was ‘sensible and measured’, without the excessive tightening some had feared. And if you’re going to raise taxes, doing so by freezing thresholds is a slightly less painful way of doing it than raising rates directly (though it is also the fiscal version of Boiling Frog Britain).

The basic political rationale, set out here, is that a painful Budget paves the way for brighter times closer to the 2024 election. Maybe, but even if we assume growth does pick up, there’s a more insidious problem that a healthier economy alone won’t fix – too many things take too damn long.

Whether it’s catching a train, getting a GP appointment, renewing a passport, finding your kid a nursery place or buying a home, doing ordinary stuff takes longer – not than it should in an ideal world, but than it used to here in the UK. And God help you if you’ve got a query about your tax return…

Nicole Sykes’ piece earlier this week set out the scale of the problem in stark terms: 7.1 million people on NHS England waiting lists, 110,000 cases waiting in the family courts and 100,000 families in temporary accommodation. For the poor, this often means charities taking up the slack, but they too face the same financial pressures as the rest of us. For the better off – but not necessarily wealthy – it increasingly means paying to go private.

It’s not just the waits faced by individuals, but the saintly patience required to get anything big done in this country. Look how far behind schedule most major infrastructure projects are. Wince at the length of time it takes to get a housing development built, provided you can get it past your council’s planning authority, of course.

I doubt I’m alone in finding this turgidity rather psychologically unsettling. In so many ways, technology has made our lives incredibly fast and efficient. We live in a one-click, 24-hour, 10-seconds-of-fame culture, one where huge companies can seemingly rise and fall in an instant – yet so much of our interaction with the state is characterised by thumb-twiddling frustration.

Nowhere is our queuing addiction more deleterious than in the energy sector. As Octopus Energy CEO Greg Jackson told our Margaret Thatcher Conference on Monday, Britain is ‘very rapidly’ losing its lead on renewable energy because of an ‘ossified’ system that puts energy generators in a wholly unnecessary holding pattern. Are we really going to lead a green industrial revolution when getting a wind turbine up and running takes the best part of seven years?

And don’t expect things to improve any time soon. Swathes of the public sector, from nurses to Border Forces officers to DVLA staff, have balloted for festive strike action. Absent some seismic pay offers from the government – the kind of generosity it tends to reserve for pensioners – we can expect a whole lot more gummed up services in the months to come.

How long are we going to have to put up with this endless sclerosis? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.