Starmer must reject Labour’s Nimby-bashing to get Britain building

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer
Much of the infrastructure promised under Sir Keir Starmer's development policies represents a downgrade rather than an upgrade - James Manning/PA

In the Belgian town of Lier you’ll find the world’s slowest clock, where one full revolution of a dial takes about 25,800 years. Just the thing we need to measure how quickly we build infrastructure in Britain. If the Victorians could do it, and others can, why can’t we?

One factor is rarely acknowledged. We’re a very densely populated island, with most of the population boxed into a four-sided shape roughly bordered by Liverpool, York, Dover and Bristol. Here, some 44 million of us, or around 80pc of the English population, live and work, making it five times denser than Spain or France.

So with land and precious natural beauty at a premium, people will fight hard to preserve what they have. Density has already made property more expensive, and consent more difficult than in other countries. Add in more people, and even grudging consent starts to fray. This reality should be the starting point for policy.

Certainly, there’s more red tape and obstacles than ever. In 2011, the Localism Act of 2011 was passed, promising to return power to the people. As the then Department for Communities and Local Government put it: “Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work. It creates bureaucracy.” How did that go?

We just got more bureaucracy. Whitehall may have ceded power, but “The Blob” has taken its place. The real power now lies with an amateur police force of activists, quangos and NGOs, with lawyers at their side. The threat of litigation hovers over any official or agency who dares approve development. Before Blair, a judicial review was fairly rare. There were 160 applications in 1975. By 2011 there were 11,200. Blocking things is a standard part of the NGO toolkit.

Government tried and failed to release housing from Europe’s nutrient neutrality requirements, which the Home Builders Federation claimed blocked 145,000 new homes. But mindful of the appalling state of our rivers, the House of Lords rejected the proposal. And why are the rivers dying? Because of another failure, of course. The population has exploded, but the water companies failed to build the infrastructure needed to keep up.

And here’s one you may not know. Last week I learned that London has lost around 7pc of its mobile network sites over a year, according to industry group Mobile UK. Existing mast locations are being removed under Notices to Quit (NTQs), but not being replaced.

That doesn’t mean 7pc of London has turned into so-called not-spots, but your signal is worse than it should be. Planning officers don’t want to ruin your day, but they are overworked: a quarter left between 2013 and 2023, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute.

But supply-siders who could be doing useful work have retreated into impotent rage. The word Nimby (not in my back yard) has become a blanket condemnation, much like Trotskyists blaming “capitalism” for everything. But on such a crowded island, that’s like complaining that water is wet.

Voters know that high rents and house prices are a consequence of demand, not constrained supply, and view supply-side wheezes as gas-lighting. Writing in The Telegraph, Daniel Johnson introduced the brilliant term “human quantitative easing” to describe the policy of mass immigration to fill low-wage jobs, without regard to the long-term cost.

Migration Watch estimates that between 15 and 18 cities the size of Birmingham need to be built by 2046. We know that isn’t going to happen. And in any case, why should communities accept degraded amenities and services when the state itself negligently lost control of its borders? The implosion of Liz Truss’s government further dented trust in supply-side reforms.

Clever wonks who want to make a difference should leave the housing to more effective campaigners, and focus on how to get national infrastructure and commercial development going instead. Might Labour help?

The Labour manifesto promises 300 new planning officers, a risible commitment. Labour may not be as squeamish as protecting the green belt and on paper, new towns are politically easier to stomach than endless sprawl.

Much of the infrastructure it wants is a downgrade, not an upgrade: it is being advanced to support the subsidy-sucking renewable lobby. The infrastructure tsar, Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Infrastructure Commission, has gone fully native in Whitehall. He advocates the subtractive logic of net zero, demanding that the gas network be shut down, while building lots of new pylons to connect to idle wind turbines.

This is really not his job. In reality, the new government will be just as constrained as the old one.

And ultimately, it all comes down to energy, which is already blocking more development than an army of Nimbys could. The Greater London Authority told developers that no new housing could be built west of London until 2035, because the electricity grid was already at full capacity. Data centres along the M4 corridor had nabbed all the power.

Remember that Starmer is the patron saint of lawfare, an expert at using the law to create loopholes and traps that NGOs can exploit.

His heart may say “build”, but his head says “judicial review”. He may want to get things built, but his career has been devoted to devising ways to stop it.