The Oxford West MP symbolises all that's wrong with planning regulations
As decades of infrastructure under-investment come home to roost in the United Kingdom a new light is being thrown on the Liberal Democrats.
You might have seen this video of Nick Clegg, then leader of the party, dismissing nuclear power in 2010 because it wouldn’t come on-stream “until 2021, 2022”.
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Then there is Layla Moran, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who has the distinction of having been a proud and very vocal campaigner against a new reservoir in a part of England where villages are starting to run out of running water.
It’s the usual grim story: residents fighting tooth and nail against the planned reservoir on the basis of “no immediate need”, failing to account for the possibility of future need. Water companies are easy to demonise, but Thames Water has been trying to get ahead of this problem for more than ten years.
But it’s far from the only one. Back in 2018, Bristol Water scrapped plans for a new reservoir which had received approval in 2014. In Scotland, local councillors vetoed a reservoir tied to a major hydro-electric power scheme. What all this adds up to is that the UK hasn’t built a new reservoir in over thirty years.
It is easy to blame local government, and as with housing and so much else they do have to shoulder their share of responsibility. But the ultimate responsibility for supplying vital national infrastructure lies with the national government.
Westminster has the power to make the Abingdon reservoir happen. The Planning Act 2008 includes a scheme giving central government the power to determine planning applications for ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’, including reservoirs over 30 million cubic meters (Abingdon was slated to be 150 million).
The Conservatives have been in power in one form or another since 2010, and unburdened by the Lib Dems since 2015. Yet rather than using Parliament’s powers to get things done, they have left it to local councils, and their most NIMBYish residents, to decide the fate of major projects.
‘Making sure the taps work’ ranks even lower than ‘making the trains run on time’ or ‘catching burglars’ in Maslow’s hierarchy of citizens’ expectations which the Government is increasingly failing to meet. No volume of tax cuts is going to sell the public on a Government presiding over a country which simply doesn’t work.
In fact, by failing to ensure the basics the Tories risk discrediting that whole approach. Voters may not like paying taxes, but the most persuasive case for paying higher taxes is public services and infrastructure obviously failing.
Of course, this isn’t a spending problem: the money is there, Thames Water wants to build. All that’s needed is for our next prime minister to grasp the nettle and authorise the Abingdon Reservoir — and any others stuck in the pipeline. With just an effort of political will, they can at least make the drains run on time.