At last, the government is about to decide on a third runway at Heathrow airport — by the end of this month, I hear. It’s only been ten years since Tony Blair’s government first proposed the plan. Yet it will be three years until planning permission is granted and another six before the runway is finished. That’s two decades. Heathrow’s original three runways in 1946 took less than two years to build from scratch in a war-ravaged country depleted of funds and fuel. Why do such projects now take so inordinately long?Ridley points to a new iron triangle. Lobbyist charities do well in fundraising and point to blocking things as evidence of success. Politicians take astroturfed complaints from the lobbyist campaigns as evidence of popular opposition and so insulate themselves through lengthy processes - which also suit the bureaus. And lawyers intermediate, with complicated processes both providing avenues for suits and for regulatory consulting work.
Land-use planning in Britain is not a joke; it’s a disgrace. The present system is grotesquely biased, not so much in favour of opponents or proponents of development, but in favour of delay and cost. I happen to think HS2 and Hinkley Point C are mistakes, but if I’ve lost those battles — and I probably have — then at least let’s get on and build them quickly, rather than spend the next decade paying lawyers and consultants to slow them down and inflate their costs.
As C Northcote Parkinson might have put it (as an example of his eponymous law), the civil servant who delays a decision because he is inundated with protests, then pleads a backlog of work as a reason for needing a bigger budget and expanded team, is not being irrational; far from it. But nor is he taking decisions solely in the public interest. The protester whose actions lead to a goldmine of publicity and the besieged public servant who thereby gets a budget increase, and the lawyer who interrogates both in court — are all benefiting from delay.
If this government wants to govern it must grasp how this process works. The risk is not just that the state is ineffective but that it gets consumed. Like a caterpillar full of parasitic wasp larvae that will eat its vital organs last, Britain can still inch forward in the world economy despite its ridiculous planning system and its powerful protest industry. But not for ever. Somehow we have to rebalance the incentives in favour of faster and cheaper decision-making.