We’re fighting over-regulation with yet more regulations in an insane spiral

The policy of the Welsh government to impose a 20mph speed limit in towns and villages across the country has been controversial, to say the least.

One of its impacts has been completely contrary to the aims of Mark Drakeford’s government, which is very keen to promote public transport.  The new speed limit has led to bus operators cancelling services, as bus journey times became significantly longer. 

On a seemingly completely unrelated topic, in 2020 the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak set up a fund of almost £1bn to help build Britain’s electric vehicle charging network at motorway service stations.  

It has recently emerged that none of this fund has been spent, three years after it was established. Even a potential pilot scheme has not yet been launched.

A key reason is that the fund faced investigations from the Competition and Markets Authority over the potential for the subsidies to distort competition between motorway service area operators.

The third example in this apparently motley crew concerns Natural England, the quango set up to, in its own words, “help to protect and restore our natural world”.

The organisation submitted a proposal to build a new office for its staff in Cornwall. There were eight objectors, seven of which were local residents. The eighth was Natural England itself.

What a potentially perfect make-work scheme for graduates who might otherwise struggle to obtain gainful employment! First, assemble a team to plan the new office and consider which staff will be employed there and their roles. Second, produce another team elsewhere in the outfit to object to its own proposal. The third step is presumably to assemble a crew to construct arguments against the objection, and so on and so forth almost ad infinitum.

The Welsh Assembly did not intend its low speed limit policy to lead to less public transport being available. The Treasury came up with a very useful scheme to help promote the take up of electric vehicles. They could hardly have been expected to imagine that it would be held up for over three years by the competition regulator. In fairness to Natural England, it is  probable that those submitting the office plan did not anticipate that the main objection would come from other members of the same quango.

The common thread linking these stories is that in a society in which regulation is seen as the solution to almost any problem, unexpected consequences will abound.

The most obvious example is that of lockdowns during the pandemic. Regulation and control was seen as the solution, instead of providing the population with clear information and letting them make their own decisions. Those doing the regulation thought they knew best.

None of the excess deaths, the NHS waitlists, the impact to our public finances or kids’ education were intended. The advocates of lockdown at the time genuinely thought this was the best policy. 

Regulations are certainly needed. We could hardly expect to allow people to choose which side of the road to drive on. But the obsession with regulation has reached manic proportions. More regulation is seen as the answer to any adverse unintended consequences of regulation.

As published in City AM Wednesday 1st November 2023
Paul Ormerod
Image: geograph.org.uk

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