UK can't afford its twisted planning rules that halt good growth

Ambitious projects like a Rolls-Royce plant and the Sphere venue are challenged in search of a quiet life

The Rolls-Royce planning application led to an avalanche of needless paperwork. Photo: Rolls-Royce
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London has drawn to a halt. Getting around the city by car or bus tests the very limits of patience.

Thanks to Mayor Sadiq Khan’s pro-cycling and pro-pedestrian policies, some roads lie eerily empty, blocked off by bollards and barriers, while others are permanently jammed as more vehicles are forced to use them.

In the suburbs, ultra-low speed limits have reduced traffic to a trickle. The capital, though, is proving to be increasingly sclerotic in other ways. Tour the historic city and the eye is drawn to the great, landmark buildings. Many date back to the days of the empire, but not all.

Among the recent additions are the London Eye, Tate Modern and Millennium Dome. Over in the east there is Canary Wharf, with its steel and glass giants. The City has its iconic Shard, Gherkin, Walkie-Talkie and Cheesegrater skyscrapers.

To the south-west there is Vauxhall and its giant apartment towers, creating a Bladerunner landscape, leading to a redeveloped Battersea Power Station.

None of the above is down to Mr Khan. He’s been at City Hall since 2016 and it’s hard to find anything struck during his reign indicating a city that is progressing and provoking admiration and envy overseas.

The London Olympics of 2012 now seem a very long time ago. They weren’t on his watch, and the promise and momentum they signalled have since been lost.

Perversely, one move Mr Khan has made was to abandon City Hall by Tower Bridge as not fit for purpose and head east, to a drab, low-key mayoral headquarters in Newham. The symbolism of a leader abandoning the centre was not lost.

So, you might think that when an opportunity is presented to create a world-leading, eye-catching structure, just of the type that London was once known for, and one that would draw visitors and create more than 1,000 jobs, you could be forgiven for supposing it would be leapt at.

When the Madison Square Garden Company said it was bringing its spectacular Las Vegas “Sphere” venue concept to London – to Stratford, location of the Olympics – the move was a vote of confidence in the city. Others wanted it, but MSG chose London.

The giant LED-illuminated orb would host concerts for 21,000 people and provide 1,200 jobs. Dazzling and instantly recognisable, the brightly lit globe would be seen for miles, right across London, same as Wembley’s arch.

With its application of state-of-the-art technology, it would stand for a tech power, a city and country at the forefront of scientific advancement. Located in the East End, it would inspire the next stage of the regeneration of the area that began with the 2012 Olympics.

If anything said “open for business”, that much-used but economically vital phrase, London’s Sphere was it.

Think again. Mr Khan has rejected MSG’s proposal. An official for the Mayor said: “London is open to investment from around the world and Sadiq wants to see more world-class, ambitious, innovative entertainment venues in our city.

“But as part of looking at the planning application for the MSG Sphere, the mayor has seen independent evidence that shows the current proposals would result in an unacceptable negative impact on local residents.”

Nimbyism rules, in other words.

Forget thinking big, making audacious strokes and planting London on the world stage. This is about students and residents in nearby houses who would have their light affected, and pollution of the night-time sky.

But only until 11pm, when the ball would switched off. And many of those protesting were students, who are not generally known for going to bed early. Surely, some compromise could have been reached.

Apparently not. So, the Sphere – with all the promise and cultural and economic benefits it brings – will move on, to somewhere more amenable and positive in outlook. There is no shortage of offers, with Abu Dhabi (no surprise there) said to be a front-runner.

London’s loss is their gain. The MSG experience, however, is indicative of a much wider issue, of a Britain mired in the past, locked in paralysis.

This is a general election year and Tory MPs, anxious to cling on, and – mindful of the surprise 2021 Chesham by-election result when voters came together to oppose proposals to route the new HS2 railway through their constituency – are openly declaring their backing of Nimbys in their promotional literature.

They even use those words, be under no illusion: they support Nimbyism.

Inside proposed extension to Rolls-Royce's home at Goodwood

Inside proposed extension to Rolls-Royce's home at Goodwood

Development, improvement – they can occur in another constituency. Except they can’t, because Britain is in possession of the most stifling planning laws. So suffocating are they that it’s a miracle that even the most innocuous projects get off the ground.

The expansion of the Rolls-Royce car factory would again, you might think, be a no-brainer.

Manufacturing jobs are in short supply, the motor engineering industry is a shadow of its former self, and Rolls-Royce is one of the few, not the many.

As planning applications go, it should have been uncontroversial. As it was, the Rolls-Royce scheme has generated 337 separate piles of documents, many representing some external concern, however minor.

Something is badly wrong. Of course, we cannot let property barons ride roughshod over our pleasant land. It’s to do with a lack of ambition and imagination, qualities that once stood Britain in great stead.

It’s much easier to stick with the status quo, with the devil you know, than to take a risk. Britain needs reminding of what it once was and what it could be still.

Published: January 16, 2024, 1:57 PM
Updated: March 06, 2024, 12:15 PM