The Age of Stupid Planning Processes

Back in 1998, McKinsey published a famous report: Driving Productivity and Growth in the UK economy (pdf, free registration required), which noted the detrimental effect of inflexible and onerous (my words) land use regulations on UK productivity. They note, for example, that:

“land and property regulations … constrain the hotel and software industries… [T]heir effects can be seen in industries as diverse as airlines, banking and general merchandise retailing. By contrast, the combined effect of deregulation in capital markets and a liberal approach to the use of land in London’s Docklands during the 1980s fostered dramatic growth in investment banking and securities, a field in which the London market now leads the world.”

Whilst the McKinsey consultants were writing their report, a team of film-makers on a shoestring were working on McLibel, eventually released in 2005. A decade on, the same team have released The Age of Stupid, which I found most notable for demonstrating that onshore wind-power generation should be added to the list of industries throttled by the UK planning process.


The film is based around a future Pete Postlethwaite looking back on the current era from 50 years hence, when global warming has left London flooded and the world in anarchy. Postlethwaite views video footage which includes the stories of 3 particular characters. One was a New Orleans resident oil industry worker and hero of Hurricane Katrina. The point of continuing the reportage into the character’s retirement was lost on me. I was expecting him to denounce the oil business, but that never happened.

The other two stories were much more effective. At times the film achieved what I call “cringe humour”, as perfected by Alan Partidge, David Brent and Borat. The founder of an Indian budget airline created his own episode of The Office when he berated and threatened to fire his staff.

But the film is worth seeing most for the battle of David Cameron, sorry, Piers from Cornwall, a caricature of the upper-middle-class eco-nut – and I mean that in the nicest possible way – with a family to match. Piers’ partnership with a farmer was straight out of The Fast Show. The team wanted to build a wind-farm. But Piers was reduced nearly to tears (on the phone to his mum) by the nimby country-folk – some even more upper-class than Piers himself – who block his plans.

As The Age of Stupid demonstrates so eloquently, the UK planning process is completely dysfunctional. It effectively gives people – local residents with a vested interest and time on their hands – the power to make decisions on matters of which they know next to nothing. There is only one possible decision they can make, which is to reject plans, so the process is obviously skewed towards this outcome. The critical concept in this charade is power. As The Age of Stupid shows, the reasons for rejecting plans are often irrational, bordering on the ludicrous. Since the majority of us who would benefit from a development, such as of a wind-farm, have no say in the process, there is no other way those involved can demonstrate their power than by turning planning applications down. It is utter, utter madness.

I pointed out the same problem with housing a while ago. It is entirely illogical for local residents to be given the right of veto over housing developments that benefit (among others) prospective purchasers of the houses, who have no say whatsoever in the decision as to whether or not they are built. Where did this right come from? Some of the objections to the wind-farm in Stupid were on (largely unfounded) grounds of noise nuisance. But someone could quite legally create a similar noise, say by driving up and down a country road. Quite apart from the failure of the planning process to weigh general benefit to society against cost to individuals, it gives more weight to those nuisances (or imagined anticipated nuisances, or psychologically constructed imaginary possible nuisances) that arise from construction activity than arise in other ways.

Here are 3 possible responses to this situation:
1. Confront the problem head-on: tell people they do not have the right they think they have. Take planning decisions at a higher level, weighing the general interest of the population against that of those near a development and achieving objectivity by excluding (either explicitly or by modifying the electoral process, i.e. introducing PR) directly elected representatives for the locale affected. Tightly constrain the grounds for objection, explicitly challenging, for example, the “right” to a particular view, the value of which before and after a development is purely subjective and subject to irrational fears. To put it simply, people get used to, and even appreciate, new features in their environment.

2. Spineless, self-serving politicians are unlikely to take sufficiently drastic action in removing the rights local residents have somehow acquired, so another tactic is to buy off the opposition. Simply pay people compensation, according to a formula, for the inconvenience of – say – being within a certain distance of a new wind-turbine.

3. Developers need to get wise. A lot of objections are entirely irrational. They arise, in part, because people want to feel they have power and are not helplessly subject to developers’ whims. It is essential to engage in the right way with the Residents’ Associations, local councillors and unaffiliated busy-bodies who are likely to block developments. They have to be involved in the process, so that they feel they have power over the shape of the development. I expect there are consultants specialising in this sort of exercise. We probably need more.

A full solution will involve aspects of all three of my proposed responses. Some changes to the UK’s planning regulations have taken place for large projects since McKinsey’s report. But much more needs to be done if we are not to become a nation of ever-poorer people, living in increasingly expensive houses, heated by energy that is both unnecessarily polluting and in shorter supply than necessary. Perhaps The Age of Stupid will provide a little more impetus for change. Go see this movie.