Blain’s Morning Porridge, 8th September 2023: Persimmon is willing to blight the lives of 20,000 Hampshire residents to pay bigger dividends.
“In order to save the village we had to destroy it….”
The UK’s failure to balance regulation, oversight, and planning is highlighted by insane plans to dig a non-economic quarry in the centre of a prosperous village with no upside except to prioritise shareholders over residents.
Life in the UK becomes daily more challenging. Every day it feels we face new political sleaze or missed government targets. Inflation has eaten away disposable incomes and savings. Mortgage costs are up while home prices are down. Nothing works. Our trains run to whatever time they want, our rivers are dying from pollution, and the roads are nightmares.
And just when we think it can’t get worse…. It does.
At the core of everything seeems to be greed. Private equity firms levering up utilities to boost dividends, and then expecting the Great British Public to pay for the maintenance they never did. If the UK was a company, we’d have sacked the whole board ages ago! Like many others, I suspect the UK’s problems have been amplified by 13 years of chop’n’change government, the Brexit furore, and a Game of Thrones like leadership vacuum, allowing the power of bureaucracy within the economy to become more powerful and entrenched.
It can’t help ministers jumping in and out of positions, and their preoccupation to raise themselves up greasy pole of political hierarchy. This week we’ve seen it in the Schools’ RAAC (concrete flavoured aero) fiasco, prisoner escapes, water companies’ illegal pollution, and the new defence minister commenting how the UK’s aircraft carriers are “the largest the RAF has ever had.” Oh dear.
One of the most basic economic rules – but sadly the most ignored – is Niskanen’s Theory of Bureaucracy. It states any official’s economic imperative is to expand their scope and oversight, resulting in deepening red-tape treacle and chronic inefficiency. It can only be limited by politicians holding them to account through diligent mastery of their briefs.
As a result of poor oversight and zero accountability, the UK’s problems of unenforced regulation, chaotic planning and bad management has left the economy vulnerable. Bureaucratic processes win when complexity and rules do more harm than good. Greedy corporates love it – complexity raises opportunities to game the system.
The result is a growing sense of injustice among the electorate. How have the water companies got away with paying massive dividends, but failed to maintain our water and sewerage infrastructure? Why are the trains worse today, decades after privatisation? Why do we increasingly feel the rules are biased towards the rich at the expense of the middle classes?
Who is to blame?
Let me illustrate the problem with a crisis in my village of Hamble-le-Rice (4500 inhabitants). It’s a travesty of common sense, bad politics, greed and injustice that will blight the lives of some 20,000 residents along the entire Hamble Peninsula on England’s Solent Coast.
Hampshire’s planning bureaucracy is set to approve a massive gravel quarry on what used to be an airfield right in the centre of our village. They will do so because planning bureaucracy demands the authority is seen to have a central “strategic” plan. Part of that plan deals with “strategic resources”. Gravel is such a strategic resource. Despite Hampshire sitting on 11 years supply of gravel in its depots, the authority will approve the plan with barely a nod. That’s because “the rules and laws about viability and proximity ” mean that a proper investigation and planning tests are “not necessary” when allocating resources. From the perspective of county planners, gravel trumps the interests of 20,000 local residents.
The only parties who will benefit are the quarry firm, CEMEX, which is contracted by the landowner, homebuilder Persimmon – which stands to profit massively.
Persimmon has spent decades trying to build homes on Hamble’s former airfield. They have been refused multiple times. Now they’ve found a way to do it. By digging out the “strategic resource” of the gravel (which nobody wants or needs), they will make the protected airfield a brownfield site. Bingo! They will then be able to get planning permission on the site they’ve been denied planning for many times.
Persimmon have finagled the rules to build houses on what is currently a protected “Strategic Gap” of green land. They have arbitraged the planning rules and gamed the strategic plan. Persimmon will reap windfall profits by building on what was once unbuildable land.
Fantastic, you might think – more homes. But. But, and but again…
The cost to residents and the local economy will be immense. They will suffer at least 15 years of quarry disruption resulting in pollution, dust and air-quality illnesses, more congested roads, schools and education put at risk, lost jobs, while existing home prices will plummet. The Environment, including the River Hamble, which is a designated area of conservation to protect nature, wildlife and birds, will be irretrievably damaged, through run off water and the displacement of users.
The planning officers say they are simply doing their jobs – following government guidelines … doing what years of confused, poorly configured and foolish planning regulations, and a lack of oversight, tell them they must consider.
This story is not just about a quarry or gravel nobody needs, but about corporate greed; prioritising dividends and profits over the quality of life of the residents. It’s a classic stockholder vs stakeholder conflict. Should the many suffer to benefit a few investors?
If the market truly believed in ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) based investing, then Persimmon’s plans would make them an investment pariah, failing every aspect. No one would touch a firm deliberating setting out to do social damage to the fabric of a thriving community, to knowingly destroy the local environment, while and demonstrating greed as the main drive of its governance standards. Its’ stock price would crash. But… it’s a mumble-swerve when you ask your fund manager why they hold Persimmon stock.
Let me tell you the story……
Hamble is a beautiful and busy village at the end of a peninsula and has become the centre of UK sailing with over 7000 boats moored on the River Hamble to the South. There are thriving optical and avionics businesses established at the Northern end. The marine industry contributes massively to the local economy as well as the national boating industry, creating hi-value yachting service jobs, hosting international events, while boasting a thriving local culture. It’s a very popular place to live – reflected in high housing prices, as well as a popular tourist destination.
At the heart of our village is the airfield – famous in WW2 as home of the Spitfire Girls who delivered repaired aircraft to RAF squadrons around the country. The village expanded around the airfield, and housing and schools now surround it on three sides. The airfield later became a pilot training centre. When it was closed in the 1980s the intention was for it to become parkland and green space. There was some talk of a golf course – but no-one in Hamble has time for golf, we go sailing instead. Today the airfield is designated a “strategic gap” and is semi-wild, used by the whole village. There are playing fields, paths, and at residents walk their dogs on it. Kids cross from home to School avoiding the single busy road the village has grown around.
Despite the local borough council making clear the need to keep the green space, Persimmon – which incidentally is among the largest contributors to Tory Party funds – acquired the land. Although it was protected, Persimmon knows rabbit hutches in Hamble will sell at a multiple of what rabbit hutches will sell elsewhere.
The village is not a nest of NIMBYs – “not-in-my-backyarders”. Everyone understands the need for more homes and affordable housing across the UK. But, new homes have consequences. More homes in Hamble will require massive infrastructure spending on a new road, new schools and other facilities like medical, dental etc.
Over the past decades green belt and wild common land protections have been significantly eroded. To counter that trend the airfield was declared a “strategic resource” a decade ago because it sits on a bed of gravel. As gravel is not a scarce resource no one anticipated it would ever be quarried out. Every year thousands of tonnes of gravel are dredged to keep Southampton Water, the third busiest port in the UK, deep enough. That gravel is dumped at sea. It is the same gravel as under the airfield. One question is why does Hampshire have to produce land gravel when there is such a plentiful source of marine gravel?
The answer is.. because the strategic plan says so.
The whole of South Hampshire was once a drowned river valley, and now sits on gravel from the Eocene age. In places it’s overlaid with London Clay and Sand. The reason Hamble had an airfield was the gravel, making it relatively flat and free draining. Any rain flows off via underground streams into the local River Hamble or Southampton Water.
In a sane world no one would contemplate a quarry in the middle of a small village, or build anything new on the Hamble Peninsula. It’s at the far end of the busiest, most congested, single lane B-Road in the UK – the B3397. (It can’t be widened, improved or re-routed because so many housing estates now cover much of the agricultural land of what was once called the Strawberry Coast). As regular as clockwork, when the shifts in the many businesses change and the schools come out, the road is blocked.
Its only 3 miles to the M-27 Motorway, but can take over 40 minutes at peak times. Local residents scraped real time data from Google Maps showing the quarry company’s claims of an easy 12 min road trip not subject to delays were blatantly untrue. Yet, Hampshire planning accepted CEMEX’s numbers.
The quarry will operate from 7am to 7pm, right next door to multiple family dwellings and two schools, an early-years centre, a medical centre, and a sports facility. It will create dust and noise, and 144 HGV lorry movements per day for decades. It will further block the already gridlocked B-road. Last week the whole village was jammed shut for hours by a single broken traffic light. Quarry co CEMEX claim there will be no loss of amenity – but they have zero experience quarrying in the centre of a village at the end of single road.
When the gravel is extracted, the quarry company will fill the hole that was once wilded and natural parkland with construction waste, meaning that instead of passing through clean gravel, rain will filter through all kinds of rubble including concrete, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and possibly asbestos and other questionable building waste. All these pollutants will then leach into the River Hamble, and Southampton Water, which is under constant battle to avoid sewage pollution sewage from Southern Water – another firm which prioritises its owner’s dividends over the interests of its consumers; we the people!
The Hamble river environment is a European protected SSSI (Site of special scientific interest), the protected birdlife along its banks, and the oyster fishery marine ecologists have been attempting to restore, will die. No one will want to moor their yacht in a cesspool of pollution, suffer the dust and air pollution the quarry will cause, or bear the noise the quarry will create. The current marine industry, an £80 mm direct economic boost to the village, a critical sector to the Hampshire economy, and thousands of jobs will disappear. The pubs will close. The high street will close. The residents who invested in fine homes will be left in negative equity with a view of dead river.
Last week, UK Cabinet Minister Michael Gove announced plans to make it easier for house builders to build homes by scrapping “nutrient neutrality” rules, meaning they don’t have to worry about run-off polluting Britain’s already polluted rivers. Fair enough, they are full of **** already courtesy of Tory Water Utility privatisation in the 1990s.
CEMEX, the quarry company, has promised to make a “significant” contribution to the Local Authority to ameliorate the potential road-capacity problems 144 lorries per day, six days per week, will cause. Local businesses all agree the biggest business problem they face is road congestion making it difficult to hire and retain staff, yet many of these established businesses have not been consulted of plans at all – one aspect is that poor public transport means staff have to drive, and seek jobs elsewhere when the road to Hamble is so slow.
CEMEX has offered to address that issue. Hampshire County Council consider a mitigation from Cemex of £500,000 to be adequate, to appease the traffic situation by improving footpaths and cycle tracks to the station – laughably aiming to improve an “active transport system” …. Residents will be able cycle or walk to the station, to switch from cars to a 40 minute train ride to Southampton on the one-train per hour that stops in the village. It’s a joke and sop – but apparently the HCC Highways Authority accept this as a good solution.
There is a long term planned strategy project for the improvement of the B road into Hamble, quoted in 2016 as £6mil, now would be in the region of £9/10 million. Given that a set of traffic lights was then quoted at £700k, the £500k won’t even paint lines down the road.
There is no demand/supply imperative or economic justification for CEMEX to dig out the gravel. As noted, there is 11 years supply banked already in the Hampshire region. There is plenty dredged from ports every year. There is no sign of a carbon mitigation plan for the project. CEMEX will not make any substantial profit from the quarry – they might from their contract with Persimmon. They will employ 7 people – but potentially make hundreds redundant in local businesses.
The only reason the quarry is being dug, and Hamble becoming the epicentre of massive disruption for 15-20 years, is so Persimmon can then drop a mass of substandard rabbit hutches on the village after they’ve destroyed it.
When the quarry is done, thousands of lives disrupted, the river polluted, all trace of wildlife scattered, at least the roads might be less busy because of economic collapse in the marine heritage and engineering businesses in the village.
Persimmon will start building. They will build new homes, but not the new schools, or a new GP practice or any other facilities the village will still need. If they follow previous form, they will promise some sports facilities and then not deliver. They will build an estate of rabbit hutches with no facilities. If residents want anything, they can catch a train to Southampton – because there will be nothing left in Hamble.
How can we stop it? There is little point complaining to planning – they are jobsworths. We need focused politicians to see sense and stand up for the future of residents, their children and the planet, to change the rules and managing the planning system to favour citizens over shareholder dividends.
We need local and national politicians to not only make their opposition clear, but to act. If not, sack them.
We need investors to stop investing in ESG Greenwashing – building homes is socially good, but not when it destroys livelihoods, destroys the environment and rewards greed over citizen rights.
Persimmon need to be stopped, and it made clear they can never destroy a local society to pay shareholders bigger dividends. We live in a society that should balance all parties – stakeholder rather than greed-driven shareholder capitalism. Our only power over planning bureaucrats is we have the vote. We should not be afraid to use it.
Voters around the county should be asking candidates questions on how they will correct miscarriages of common purpose like the failed regulation of water services, failed school maintenance and planning failings like the Hamble Quarry. Start scaring politicians, and I expect they will pay much more attention to their briefs.
Strategist – Shard Capital
Normal Morning Porridge service will resume next week.