Blain’s Morning Porridge – 24th Feb 2023 – Note to Sir Keir Starmer: Clarkson’s Farm and the Hamble Quarry demonstrate how Bureaucracy is killing UK Growth
“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from government and I’m here to help.”
This morning: Labour Leader Keir Starmer has announced growth is a core mission for the next UK government. He should look how Clarkson’s Diddley Squat Farm and the threat to obliterate my village of Hamble with a wholly unnecessary gravel quarry demonstrate how the UK’s local planning and over-regulation stifles growth, hope, and expectations. The process isn’t fit for any purpose. Bureaucrats have anything but the interests of local people in mind. Big money walks all over them.
The likely next Prime Minister of the UK, Sir Keir Starmer, has announced Growth will be a Core Mission for the next government. He, as did failed premier Liz Truss, recognises growth is the critical national priority everything else will rise or fall on. The devil will be in the detail. It’s more complex than just creating investment incentives, ensuring financing availability, training, advice and tax breaks.
Fundamental to any economy is getting the basics right, and for the UK that must include reigning back local government bureaucracy, and putting disciplined planning and regulatory systems. Currently they act like glue gumming up the whole economy.
In the game of successful nations, its often the small things government gets wrong. Cumulatively small mistakes can destroy economies. This morning’s Porridge is about how the failure of local bureaucracies is wrecking the UK using two examples:
- Part 1 is about Jeremy Clarkson.
- Part 2 is my own story: how my own delightful village of Hamble-le-Rice could be legally destroyed by naked corporate greed supported by the flawed planning process.
Get the pitchforks and torches out… It’s all about tearing down unnecessary bureaucracy….
Niskanen’s Theory of Bureaucracy explains how regulation oft goes awry because of economic behaviour. The theory holds bureaucrats will seek to maximise their power over what they regulate, and increasingly impose their own preferences rather than the objectives of government. I would add a third factor – bureaucracies are influenced by and respond slavishly to greed and power.
Part 1 – Diddley Squat Farm
The most side-splittingly funny TV show at present is Series 2 of Clarkson’s Farm – the saga of Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddley Squat farm. She-who-is-Mrs-Blain detested Jezzer the Petrolhead, but loves Jezzer the Farmer. In the programme, on Amazon Prime, he pokes honest fun at his own many failings as a learner farmer, but is kept in line by farming land agent Charlie Ireland and proper farmer Kaleb Cooper. It’s absolutely the funniest thing you will watch.. until you realise just how loaded the system is against farmers.
It gets dark, very dark as you realise the Kafkaesque reality facing British farmers.
Everything, absolutely everything, farmers do is regulated to the nth degree by multiple levels of “farming police”. How many pen pushers are there in the DEFRA who have nothing to do but tick boxes? How many are needed? Farmers are swamped by forms to be filled and reporting that seems utterly pointless – rather than getting on with what they know best: producing the best food in a safe and healthy manner.
Initially you think Clarkson is playing the bureaucracy card for laughs – until you see the genuine stress in his increasingly haggard visage.
If farming stress is breaking a multi-millionaire media host, spare a thought for his fellow farmers paying themselves nothing because EU hogs are still attracting subsidies, or the lady who has lost half her cows to TB, but can do nothing about it because the Cow-police favour tubercular badgers over their livelihoods. (Government policy – and fear of the badger lobby – means the UK now has a multiple larger number of badgers per square mile than any other nation. Badgers or Farmers? Your call.)
In 2020 Diddley Squat lived up to its name – making a grand profit of £144. No zeros or a K to follow that bleak number. Clarkson paid himself nothing from farming, but no doubt got a nice check from Jeff Bezos… Good on him.
He has learnt there is little to be made selling meat and produce to the big supermarkets at loss making prices. Things are getting tougher – Brexit means UK farmers are losing all subsidies – great news for taxpayers and a Brexit Benefit say’s the ERG! While there certainly are rich farmers, they are a minority.
Across the nation, the majority of farmers are in deep financial trouble. They have the highest work-related suicide rate, and its usually due to financial pressures, particularly the risk of losing farms that have been in the family for generations. There is thin cruel in terms of government help – they’ve told farmers to go diversify their income and grow alternative businesses to keep themselves afloat.
To keep a long story short, that exactly what Clarkson tried to do.
Jezzer and his neighbouring farmers (who formed a cooperative), are producing some of the finest produce in the land. Rather than sell it for pennies to supermarkets, they can sell it themselves, directly through farm shops and a local restaurant on Diddley Squat farm. A plan was hatched, and Clarkson opened a farm shop and then tried to open a local restaurant using solely local produce. The economics are simple. Sell a cow to Tesco for £1000 or sell it yourself “nose-to-tail” at Diddley Squat for £25,000.
It was all a disaster. The farm shop was swamped by Clarkson fans. It caused traffic jams. A number of locals complained bitterly. Clarkson’s apologies seem to have been largely accepted by locals. He made some effort by sponsoring local teams and farming competitions. But a hard core of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) have fought his plans at every step. Top lawyers were hired at enormous expense to fight Clarkson’s every step.
The Diddley Squat restaurant would have created up to 50 local jobs, raised farm incomes, and brought money into the area for food producers, builders and staff. It was rejected outright by the West Oxfordshire District Council. One councillor said he watched the “Sky at Night” astronomy show and wanted dark skies – even though there is a caravan park right next door to the site!
The council said it wants to protect the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) the farm is in. That’s exactly what Clarkson and his fellow farmers want – making AONB’s sustainable by making farms sustainable. The council isn’t interested in the historical reality that is been generations of its farmers that have made the land and keep it that way.
To appeal the council decision would cost Clarkson £500,000 – with no guarantee of success.
The costs of the crippling amount of red-tape farmers are now required to deal with falls unequally on family farms. In contrast large agribusiness (which are increasingly common, buying up multiple bankrupted farms) can absorb these costs, and have the resources to fight planning that goes against them. Bankrupt a local farm because the council insists on a slate roof, and a few years later it’s not a pretty country restaurant the owner wants to build, but a 5000-cow processing factory, while dispensing completely with hedgerows and fields. There is no chance a farmer can build a shop, but a massive agribusiness based in the Caymans, and minister under it’s wing, can get away with anything.
Since rejecting the Diddley Squat restaurant the council has found fault in everything Clarkson has tried to do to increase his farm income – stopping him from building a car park, thus closing his farm shop, and even stopping him building new farm tracks… which is apparently unprecedented anywhere in the UK – micromanaging his farm by regulation.
Some local councillors are on record saying the concerted attack on Clarkson by their colleagues has become “personal”. That’s surely a case for prosecution? Having been on a yacht club board, I know just how nasty and vindictive the petty types become when given a modicum of power. There are rumours the campaign against Jezzer is being funded by a few rich folk who’ve moved to the area from London, and want it kept quiet and peaceful. The council, largely made up of older wealthier blow-ins rather than farming locals who work for their livings, is more than happy to pander to their wealth.
Official government advice to farms is diversify their income. Advice to planning departments is to support diversification. As the Diddley Squat case shows… bureaucracy, money and vested interests ignore local interests. The chance to create local growth and have built a healthy, sustainable, green local economy based on local fresh produce has been lost. Its value could have been substantial.
Part 2 – Hamble Quarry
I live in the beautiful village of Hamble-le-Rice, nestled on our own river with 8000 moored boats. It’s the heart of UK sailing industry with boat firms, marinas and suppliers contributing some £80mm per annum to the village economy. This creates many jobs in the pubs and shops.
At the centre of our village is an old airfield – famous in WW2 as home of the Spitfire Girls. When it was closed in the 1980s the intention was for it to become parkland and remain green belt. Despite that home builder Persimmon – which incidentally is the largest contributor to Tory Party funds – acquired the land. It wants to build homes – which is a problem as Hamble is situated on a peninsula with only a single lane B-road, (said to be the busiest in Britain), serving the village which is already short schools, medical cover and other basic amenities.
The airfield site is a pleasantly overgrown park. It’s at the very centre of the village, surrounded on three sides by hi-quality housing, offices, light industry and two local schools.
A few years ago the airfield was identified as a “strategic resource” by Hampshire Council. It became an airfield because the fields never flooded, and that’s because they are built on a big bed of gravel deposited over the millennia by the rivers that flowed into the English Channel via the Solent. The same gravel is regularly dredged out the main shipping channel into Southampton Port just a few hundred yards from the site.
The gravel designation should have ended any chance for Persimmon to build on the land. Until Persimmon hatched a scheme to get Mexican quarry company CEMEX to dig the gravel from its land. The project will involve over 70 lorry movements per day for 15 years on the already crowded roads. Hefty road congestion, and tripling the time it takes to get in and out the village, will make it impossible to recruit and retain staff in local businesses. It will create noise and dust hazard immediately adjacent to housing and schools 6 days per week. The dust will coat boats in the marinas causing owners to move elsewhere. The site will be landfilled, meaning drainage problems, and chemicals will be leaching from what will be a dump into the River Hamble, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, for centuries.
The Village has, of course, mounted a vigorous campaign against the quarry. Data scientists among us have demonstrated much of the professional looking presentations on issues like traffic disruption and health provided by CEMEX for the inquiry is utterly bogus and false. (Using data from Google Maps showed Cemex’s claims of a short 3 min drive to the motorway of minutes is more like half-an-hour and that a single breakdown will stop ambulances for ages.) Hydrologists have shown it will lead to massive pollution and flooding undermining our houses, and also the local railway.
The stark reality is the Quarry will cost multiple jobs, bankrupt local businesses, and directly impact all homeowners in the village. Not a single public body or business supports the Quarry plan. One person who doesn’t like dogs walking on the airfield was in favour of a quarry. He gets a bigger mention in the Cemex submission than the rest of the village’s comments.
There is no economic need for CEMEX to dig out the gravel. There is no UK shortage of any gravel grades. There is plenty dredged from ports every year – although Cemex say the same gravel dredged ¼ mile from the site from Southampton Water is not suitable. That’s also a bogus claim. Nor does Cemex stand to make any reasonable business profit from the quarry. The will employ 3 or 4 people to make hundreds redundant.
The only reason the quarry is being dug, and Hamble becoming the epicentre of massive disruption for 15-20 years, is so Persimmon can drop a mass of substandard rabbit hutches on the village after they destroy it. We have demanded access to any financial arrangements or agreements between CEMEX and Persimmon. They are under no obligation to reveal anything to local residents.
Hampshire Country Council will decide on the application. We have been warned there is a good change they will approve it simply because gravel provision is part of the county’s strategic resource plan and it’s their job to deliver that plan. It is the job of the “planners” to meet their strategic “quota”.
The lives of local people will not just be blighted, but ruined. Our home prices, once among the highest in Hampshire, will tumble. Out mental health will crash. If we lose it will cost village residents at least £10,000 each to appeal the decision to the Secretary of State. Cemex know that. Persimmon know that. If we win, they will take us to appeal, knowing the unrecoverable costs will terrify many villagers.
The current system is loaded against the people. Its also loaded againt our local economy. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the council. It must be very exciting for local planning officers and councillors to be mixing with the bigwigs at CEMEX and Persimmon. Maybe they’ll be hoping some of the money that flows through to Conservative Central Office will rub off on them?
The bottom line is UK planning is deeply, deeply flawed. There should be very simple rules – favour the majority, the local people who will be affected rather than pander to greed, wealth and big money. If you want to create growth – do it with the people, like the farmers who know their land and produce, or the villagers in Hamble who want to see marine and yachting businesses grow and the local economy of shops, restaurants and pubs thrive.
If you want to kill growth – let planners decide and big money talk. And… Eat the Rich.
I am off on holiday next week… if anything happens…..
Strategist – Shard Capital