Discover more from Notes on Growth
Builders, not blockers.
Plus, how NIMBYs kill fertility and lessons from Israel on gettting apartments built.
Why does it take so long to build new wind farms, nuclear power stations, and transmission lines in Britain? And more importantly, what can be done about it?
Finding an answer to these two questions has been the focus of my research since I joined the campaign group Britain Remade around six months ago.
In the process, I’ve looked at the massive administrative burdens imposed on infrastructure developers by the planning system and environmental legislation. I’ve explained how solar developers are keeping their projects small to avoid being dragged into the Development Consent Order regime, covered England’s absurd ban on onshore wind farms, and highlighted how Spain is doing things differently (read: better).
Britain Remade recently published a report which is, in effect, my attempt to answer those two crucial questions. In Powerbook, I set out 25 policy measures designed to speed up the deployment of clean alternatives to expensive imported gas.
At the moment, it takes around twelve years to build a new offshore wind farm, but the actual construction phase takes, at most, three. At the front-end, before they submit their planning application developers must prepare extensive environmental impact assessments and carry out multiple expensive public consultations. Once their application has been received, it typically takes around two years to receive a decision. That’s the average of course, it can, as in the case of Hornsea Three wind farm take even longer.
There’s also the matter of legal challenges, which often add further delays, and can be mounted on flimsy grounds. For example, proposed nuclear power station Sizewell C had its planning permission challenged recently on the grounds that the developer had failed to consider the environmental impacts of the project. One can only assume they haven’t got around to reading the 44,000 page environmental impact assessment prepared by the developer.
At this pace, a project put forward today wouldn’t see construction begin until the 2030s. Yet, this is only half the story. There’s still the small matter of the connecting the wind farm to the grid. My report cites the case of a battery storage facility that was given a thirteen-year wait for a grid connection. And this is far from an isolated case, I’ve heard similar from at least two energy entrepreneurs.
Long and uncertain wait-times for new renewable projects not only mean that energy bills are higher for longer, they also make projects less attractive as investments. At the launch of Powerbook, Octopus Energy founder Greg Jackson explained that these delays push up the cost of capital threatening the viability of projects.
But these long waits are not inevitable. Britain Remade’s Powerbook sets out 25 practical policy changes to streamline planning timelines and slash grid connection queues. Some changes, such as those to the Development Consent Order process, are small and technical. But they add up and are the policy equivalent of the marginal gains approach that delivered Olympic success to Team GB in the velodrome. Others are more radical such as the proposal to copy Spain’s policy of waiving environmental impact assessments in certain areas or the call to allow ex-coal sites to be repurposed into small modular reactors. (I’ll be writing about some of these ideas in more depth over the coming weeks.)
What I find reassuring is that there’s support for these measures from across the political spectrum. Labour’s climate spokesman Ed Miliband spoke at the Powerbook’s launch and described it as ‘a manifesto for hope’. He noted that environmentalists are good at blocking specific bad projects, but not yet good at advocating for building specific good projects. (You can see Ed’s arguments echoed in The Economist’s recent leader “The case for an environmentalism that builds.”)
While former Conservative Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke said it was ‘full of bold but deliverable recommendations’ and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street said that several of the recommendation ‘could really help break this gridlock.’
You can read Powerbook: A Playbook for Energy Security by 2030 on Britain Remade’s website.
What I’ve been writing elsewhere
Outside of Powerbook, I’ve had limited opportunities to write – that should change now. But I did manage to write a piece on environmental review and the barriers it poses to projects that are essential to preventing climate change for my favourite magazine Works in Progress.
Here’s an excerpt:
Or consider the construction of Britain’s national electricity grid in the 1920s–1930s. In the space of three years, Britain devised a plan to connect over 100 of the UK’s most efficient power stations into seven local grids across the country, and passed legislation needed to enable the plan and begin work on it. It took five more years for the project to be completed, with 4,000 miles of cables running across 26,000 pylons around the country. A year after the seven local grids were built, a group of impatient and rebellious engineers decided it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and switched on the connections between the seven grid areas themselves to form a single national system. That national system remains to this day.
It is hard to imagine projects of similar scale taking place today at similar speeds. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, capable of powering six million homes with low-carbon electricity, was originally expected to be in operation this year. In fact, it will not be completed until 2027, despite developer EDF applying for planning permission in 2011. Likewise, the Aquind Interconnector, based on 150 miles of undersea cables connecting Great Britain’s and France’s national grids, was blocked three years after its planning application was first submitted. The secretary of state’s ruling cited traffic during construction and the impact on the views from a historic cottage as reasons for refusing the undersea cable, which would have been able to transfer 17 terawatt-hours of electricity each year.
Since I wrote it, I’ve learnt that the article was quoted in the House of Lords. The post inspired a thread by road engineer Michael Dnes. As it happens, he also wrote a fantastic piece for the very same magazine last year on a terrible scheme to build massive motorways through some of London’s best bits and how it sparked NIMBYism in Britain.
I also have a piece in The House magazine on applying lessons in housing policy from South Korea, Israel and Houston to England’s illogical onshore wind ban.
Here’s an excerpt:
Britain desperately needs more homes, more wind farms, and more electricity grid connections, but we seem unable to build them, or at least, build enough of them. Extensive paperwork requirements – Norfolk Boreas wind farm required an environmental statement almost twice as long as the complete works of Tolstoy – do not help. But even when developers have dotted the “i”s and crossed the “t”s, projects frequently get rejected. Think of all that ink spilled for nothing.
The problem is that Britain has a planning system which gives people every possible incentive to say no and almost none to say yes. Homeowners, who both outnumber renters and are more likely to vote, bear the costs of new development but do not share in the benefits. Local residents bear the burden of more disruption from construction, congested roads, and changes in their neighbourhoods’ characters. Meanwhile the benefit of more affordable housing is diffuse – barely perceptible on a project-by-project basis. This is a classic problem in political economy. When the benefits of change are spread thin, but the costs are concentrated, it is a recipe for sclerosis.
You can read the whole thing here.
Back in 1990, the average age of a British first-time mum was 25 and a half. Since then, at a rate of just under one and a half months per year, first-time mums have been getting older. In an article for The Daily Telegraph, I argue that Britain's housing shortage is to blame for this concerning trend.
It is no coincidence that at the same time house prices have reached great highs, young people are choosing – if you can call it that – to wait ever longer before having kids.
One study by Cevat Giray Aksoy, an economist at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development found that, all things being equal, a 10 per cent increase in house prices leads to an almost 5 per cent fall in the birth rate among renters, and 1.3 per cent fall in the overall number of births.
His study is no outlier. Studies from Australia, Sweden and the US all find that high house prices lead to parents having kids later. In fact, the last study found that the impact of being in an expensive housing market was a three-to-four-year delay in the age at which people have kids. As the authors of one paper put it: "The more expensive an extra bedroom is, the more expensive it is to have more (or any) children.”
You can read the full article here (£).