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Why We Can’t Build Diddly Squat
Season 2 of ‘Clarkson’s Farm’ shows us all we need to know about the economic and cultural conformism that stifles growth
There is a growing chorus of voices arguing that we need to build more. We need to reduce the barriers created by byzantine permitting processes, break through a long period of relative economic and technological stagnation and regain a sense of cultural vibrancy and ambition.
You can read a lot about this and get all the details from the policy wonks, but there is a quicker, easier and more entertaining way to grasp the whole picture: Watch Season 2 of the Amazon Prime series “Clarkson’s Farm.” These eight hour-long episodes, and the subsequent fate of Diddly Squat Farm, illustrate all the aspects of our current malaise, regulatory and cultural.
How Hard Can It Be?
“Clarkson’s Farm” features Jeremy Clarkson, a tall, booming-voiced British TV host most famous for “Top Gear,” a long-running show in which he and his co-hosts tested and reviewed high-end cars, in between attempting various stunts. The series had a running gag in which Clarkson would challenge himself and his co-hosts to undertake some kind of auto-related building and design project—for example, making an amphibious vehicle or a better ambulance—and he would always begin by asking, “How hard can it be?” This was a cue to the viewer that everything was about to go horribly wrong. Clarkson would attempt some grandiose and unrealistic idea, and he would discover exactly how hard it could be.
This is the whole premise of “Clarkson’s Farm.” For years, Clarkson has owned a 1,000-acre farm in the Cotswolds, a rural area about two hours west of London. In the series premiere, he explains that the farmer he had hired to run it for him was retiring, so he has decided to take on the task of farming himself. After all, how hard can it be?
He finds out, over and over. As someone who grew up in the middle of America’s Corn Belt, I’ve gotten a lot of amusement from seeing a city slicker discover the rigors of farm life: the early mornings and long hours, the equipment breakdowns, the constant problems with pests and above all the uncertainty of the weather, which usually consists of either too much rain or not enough.
Appropriately enough, Clarkson named his property Diddly Squat Farm, a reference to how much money he expects to make from it. That expectation has not been disappointed. In his typical style, Clarkson keeps coming up with clever shortcuts that he thinks will save time and effort, which end up costing much more time and effort in the end. He can be abrasive and blustery—his abusive behavior toward an underling got him fired from “Top Gear”—but his virtue is that he is not afraid of looking like an idiot. He is not afraid to fail, and fail frequently, and be shown failing on television to millions of viewers.
The show’s appeal is largely due to the accidental comedy duo of Clarkson and Kaleb Cooper, his local hired assistant and the breakout star of the series. They make a perfect study in opposites. Jeremy is old and crochety, while Kaleb is young and ingenuous. (Jeremy keeps referring to the younger man, who is 20 years old when the show begins, as a “fetus.”) Jeremy is worldly and sophisticated, while Kaleb has never left the Cotswolds and doesn’t read books. He knows less than Jeremy about just about everything—except farming, where their positions are completely reversed.
Best of all, Kaleb is totally unawed by Jeremy’s wealth and celebrity and shows no reluctance to chew him out for his many mistakes. A rough kind of affection grows between them as they share in the challenges of running the farm.
Not in My Barnyard
The show also features a quiet-spoken little man named Charlie Ireland, Jeremy’s land agent and business adviser. Jeremy ironically calls him “Cheerful Charlie,” because his main function is to show up from time to time and remind Clarkson of all the paperwork he has to fill out and all the bureaucratic permissions he needs for everything he does on the farm.
This becomes the running theme of the show’s second season, which chronicles Clarkson’s epic battle with his local district council to get permission to build a restaurant on the farm. This is necessary partly to offset the loss of government subsidies from the European Union as a result of Brexit. It’s not just Jeremy’s problem, though. Many of his farm neighbors are in desperate straits—lacking Clarkson’s outside sources of income—and are looking forward to being able to sell him their milk, beef, pork and vegetables.
But the local planning council fights him every step of the way. A village nemesis hires a lawyer from London to denounce him. The council not only refuses permission for the restaurant but begins cracking down on his farm shop with an onslaught of pettifogging regulations. Their demands are often contradictory. The local police require him to install lights to deter burglary, while another bureaucracy denounces the lights as a blight on the local scenery. Highway officials complain that patrons of Clarkson’s farm shop are parking on the shoulders of the road, even as the council denies him permission to build a parking lot. Clarkson’s fame is clearly working against him, producing a resentment that hardens into reflexive opposition.
The whole story is a case study in classic NIMBYism: Well-off people in the local village decide that they want to keep the quaint farms of the surrounding countryside as their personal view, never mind the impact on the farmers. And these busybodies end up having more influence than the farmers whose lands they are disposing of.
Clarkson continually runs up against the limits created by the Cotswolds’ designation as an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” It is, in fact, outstandingly beautiful. But the area is mostly farmland, and a farm is not exactly “natural.” A meadow or a forest might be natural, but as we see in the show, a farm has to be maintained by constant human activity. To declare your right to a view of farmland is to claim a right to someone else’s labor.
Clarkson eventually finds a loophole in the law that allows him to renovate an existing barn and open his restaurant without local permission. The season ends on a hopeful note, with Jeremy and Charlie—actually cheerful, for once—talking about all the other farmers who have heard about his venture and realized they can do the same thing.
It Takes a Village
But this cheer doesn’t last. In a coda to Season 2, I recently saw the news that Clarkson’s farm restaurant has closed. This is not because it has failed, as many restaurants do, but because the village clamped down:
At the time of opening, the Diddly Squat restaurant received a list of orders from the West Oxfordshire District Council which needed to be completed within six weeks of the notice being served.
Unfortunately, this deadline passed and the council deemed that the measures taken were not sufficient…. As of present, Clarkson seems to have given in to the council's high demands and has no plans to re-open the restaurant. This is a problem that goes far beyond West Oxfordshire. A recent study by the Centre for Cities concluded, “Compared to the average European country, Britain today has a backlog of 4.3 million homes that are missing from the national housing market as they were never built.” It traces the problem back to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which created the current system in which ownership of land no longer confers a right to build on it, so everything has to be approved by local councils.
This is what gave power to the local busybodies. Not only does it create a whole network of veto points that can stop any project, but it also empowers district councils to carry out vendettas against anyone who isn’t properly ingratiating. One of the “Clarkson’s Farm” episode descriptions puts it wryly: “Faced with Council powers that be, Jeremy uses two of his greatest skills: diplomacy and respect for red tape.” Anyone who has followed Clarkson’s career knows that these are skills he entirely lacks. But should these be the primary legal preconditions for getting anything done?
With its massive housing shortage and skyrocketing home prices, Britain is in worse shape than the U.S., but we are racing to catch up. In The New York Times, Ezra Klein recently tried to puzzle out why the productivity of construction has not increased for 50 years. The main factor he cites is “paperwork, and paperwork, and more paperwork.” As an experienced construction manager told him, “There are so many people who want to have some say over a project. You have to meet so many parking spaces, per unit. It needs to be this far back from the sight lines. You have to use this much reclaimed water. You didn’t have 30 people sitting in a hearing room for the approval of a permit 40 years ago.” Another expert chimes in: “There are a lot of mouths at the trough that need to be fed to get anything started or done. So many people can gum up the works.”
It’s the same village mentality that Clarkson collided with in the Cotswolds, and it goes beyond housing. The Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome recently noted certificate-of-need regulations that have healthcare providers “fighting each other to win regulatory permission to build hospitals and add beds in rapidly-growing areas that now lack services.” Or consider the CHIPS Act, which is supposed to bring semiconductor manufacturers back to the U.S. but then imposes a whole series of mandates on them, including “to ensure affordable child care for their workers, limit stock buybacks, and share certain excess profits with the government.” And we wonder why no one was building microchips in the U.S. before now.
The Village Virus
I said that “Clarkson’s Farm” would show us everything that is suppressing our growth and vibrancy, but there is one last piece of the puzzle. In December, in the least surprising development ever, Jeremy Clarkson said something very mean about Meghan Markle, the actress turned duchess turned attention-hungry reality TV star. A lot of people are saying mean things about Markle and her husband these days, but Clarkson’s words were particularly hyperbolic and crude—like I said, he’s an abrasive loudmouth—and then he made the additional mistake of issuing a groveling apology, which just made his critics smell blood.
So, a different kind of village council cracked down—the village council of progressive Twitter and the Great Harry and Meghan Culture War. Since hyperbole must be answered with hyperbole, Clarkson was promptly denounced as a bigot and a misogynist, and Amazon announced that it would no longer carry Season 3 of “Clarkson’s Farm,” despite Season 2 being a huge hit. The narrow-minded conformism that used to be derided as the “village virus” of small towns has now found a home on social media, where it employs the same old technique of mass ostracism.
That is what connects the canceling of Clarkson’s restaurant to the canceling of his show. It is what connects the stifling NIMBYism of economic regulations with the “cancel culture” of our public discourse. We have made social conformity into our primary goal and placed it in the way of doing and creating.
This is why we can’t build diddly squat.