Why we won’t solve the housing crisis without understanding NIMBYs

Simply liberalising planning law won’t be enough to dissuade residents concerns around housebuilding

Newly elected Lib Dem MP for Chesham and Amersham Sarah Green in the early hours of 18 June 2021

This morning Britain woke up to a shock by-election upset as the people of Chesham and Amersham (a leafy, wealthy, Remain-voting part of Buckinghamshire) defied the bookies to elect a Liberal Democrat for the first time since the seat was created in 1974, even more shockingly the area hasn’t voted for a Liberal at all since almost a century ago in 1922.

In the wake of this, many politicians and pundits are scrambling to assemble their hot takes about what this victory really means. To Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, he took the effort to quite literally demonstrate his point, that this was part of a wider re-alignment as the Liberal Democrats appear poised to swoop up the traditional Tory “blue wall” heartlands of affluent, cosmopolitan Southern England as the governing party focuses too much attention on new gains in the deprived, nationalistic former Labour “red wall” heartlands in the North. There is no doubt that looking at Lib Dem vote gains in local, European and general elections over the past two years that this re-alignment is certainly showing signs of life, but this is far from the whole picture; many people (particularly Conservative supporters on polar opposites of the housing debate) are pointing out at Lib Dem support for what’s known as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) policies (such as opposing the construction of the HS2 railway line and house-building) for their unprecedented success. To a large degree, they are right, and this should ring alarm bells for those who seriously want to tackle the housing crisis.

While HS2 and housing are issues that have been with the British electorate for a while, the recent change that can explain such an astronomic defeat for the governing Conservatives are recent proposed changes to planning law. The winning Lib Dem candidate Sarah Green campaigned on messaging that the proposals would “see more unwanted destruction to our countryside”, “allow developers to build over our greenbelt with local residents powerless to stop them”, and “be a devastating blow to our area”. If the Conservatives are seeing a massive electoral defeat over mild liberalisation of planning law, this ultimately makes the strategy of using it to solve the housing crisis politically unviable and unsustainable.

Those who fall on the NIMBY side of the debate have once again proven themselves as a powerful electoral force, one that shows how much harder it is for pro-housing people to organise as one group politically. As I pointed out on a another post on here, there are divides within the vaguely pro-housing side of the debate that prevents them acting as a broad pro-housing coalition for change; but just as importantly, there is an existing broad anti-housing coalition that has been pretty successful thus far. In a game of divide and conquer, much has been done to divide pro-housing movements against the NIMBY front, but it is worth remembering that not all NIMBYs have equal beliefs, and there are a multitude of concerns that would make people go against housebuilding just as there are a multitude of conflicting strategies towards solving the housing crisis.

The only common factor which unites NIMBYs is their opposition to house building in their area, but for many of them their concerns do not necessarily mean that opposing construction is the only, or most viable, way to address their concerns. As I see it, some of the most common NIMBY objections to house building, particularly the strategy of liberalising planning law, are actually able to be tackled while house-building commitments are maintained in their own areas.

Let’s take a look at three of the main strands of Lib Dem NIMBY messaging in Chesham and Amersham:

  1. Destruction of natural habitats and beautiful green spaces
  2. Loss of local democracy over changes to their neighbourhoods
  3. Unacceptable change to architectural style and character

With the current planning system, even with the government’s proposed changes to it, those who are concerned about these problems can only use public pressure to halt construction in order for these concerns to be alleviated. As the name NIMBY suggests, many of these people aren’t even against housebuilding per se but won’t accept these problems as the price for it. For these kinds of people, who I would call soft-NIMBYs, the changes we need to our current planning law clearly cannot be a simple blanket liberalisation as they won’t address any of their concerns.

So what changes can we actually make to Britain’s sclerotic planning system to ensure houses are built with a lot fewer objections? Many of the right ideas can be found in a brilliant 2017 paper by John Myers titled YES IN MY BACK YARD How To End The Housing Crisis, Boost The Economy And Win More Votes. Myers, and his backers the Adam Smith Institute and London YIMBY, understand that liberalisation of planning is only possible by directly speaking to NIMBY concerns instead of running roughshod on them by liberalisation alone. Here’s how we can do both to allow more housebuilding while addressing the three concerns laid out above:

  1. Destruction of natural habitats and green spaces can be avoided by re-zoning the distinction of “Green Belt” and “greenfield” land more appropriately. Many have pointed out that much of the “green belt” consists of land including disused air strips and land with little to no ecological importance or natural beauty. The government can address this by removing the broad “Green Belt” distinction and focusing on applying, even expanding, the distinction of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as the base standard to separate ugly and unamenable portions of the green belt from that which can be developed. Not only will this give actual green spaces even more legal protection from development, but it does so while freeing up less objectionable sites for development by losing the inaccurate “green” label.
  2. Local democracy is something people care about, and the UK’s political system sadly offers relatively little of it with the glaring exception of development rights. The debate has raged on about whether central government or local councils should have more control but the solution may actually lie in devolving powers even more locally than the council level. The smallest level of government is of course the individual, and as the old saying goes an Englishman’s home is his castle: while many individuals might oppose developers in their areas, their attitudes shift whenever they want to build extensions and changes to their own properties. Therefore, granting permitted development rights to individual households to build upwards to a maximum of six storeys and take up more of their plots would do exactly that without giving an inch to big developers. But we can go a step further.
  3. Architecture and an area’s character, in my experience, seems to be the objection to new housing that I hear most often. If something is ugly people do not want to see it built and if every newbuild appears to be ugly it fosters a greater opposition to housebuilding as a whole. As organisations such as Create Streets have shown, it is possible to even love and encourage development while maintaining the importance of beauty. Local democracy (of which many NIMBYs seek to defend so strongly) can be devolved lower than the council level down to individual streets. Streets should be granted the power to vote on local architectural styles and design codes to allow only beautiful development to flourish. This will allow people to be much more at ease with new housing and feel like they still maintain a strong voice, even if they have less of a veto on construction as a whole. Aesthetics is not a factor that should be underrated and is a powerful motivator, as acknowledging it shows respect for communities while enabling our social commitment to more building.

Some of you may be thinking whether these concerns are genuinely held beliefs or simply excuses for people who have other motives. In many cases these are just the cuddly concerns people raise to mask more underhanded objections. Certainly the economic incentive for homeowners to have their held assets rise in price is massive, but these people do not consist the entirety of the NIMBY camp. Neutralising the existing soft-NIMBYs, or even adding them to a broader pro-housing coalition, is perhaps the only politically viable way to bring forth the change that those of us on the pro-housing side of the argument so desperately desire. The voters of Chesham and Amersham certainly felt that they were taken for granted by the Conservatives, but whether or not NIMBYism was the cause, the government should learn the lesson that nobody wants to feel ignored or left-behind. If they want their planning reforms to succeed in the long term, failing to address soft-NIMBY concerns will be at their peril.

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