Seven reasons NIMBYs oppose new developments

Public protests like this can be a major headache for developers. Image: Hat Trick Productions/Channel 4.

It is a well-known fact that London’s housing supply is not meeting demand. The city needs for nearly 50,000 new homes to be built every year until 2035; last year the number of new homes completed was just shy of 25,000.

There are many reasons why London’s housing market is not delivering, so let’s hone in on one of them: opposition from local residents. Across London there are scores of locally run campaigns, set up by residents who fiercely oppose plans for to development their neighbourhoods.

So why do people oppose new development in their area? The typical response is to dismiss them as “NIMBYs” – an acronym which stands for “not in my back yard” – bent on preventing change. But this overly simplistic “NIMBY” narrative isn’t helping anyone; nor is it helping London to tackle its housing crisis.

For our latest report Stopped: Why People Oppose Residential Development in their Back Yard, we interviewed residents, planners and developers. We identified seven main reasons why people oppose new developments:

Services

In a growing city where the underground, bus and rail services are already stretched, residents fear that an increase in population will put strain on local services – particularly roads, public transport and healthcare.

One leader of an outer London borough told us: “I already have people who can’t get on the train at 6.30 in the morning going into London. Their view is: if I build more housing, how the hell are they gonna get to work in the morning?”

Trust

The complexity of the planning system, and the vulnerability of development to the economic cycle, has led to a decline in trust between residents, developers and local authorities. This makes communication and negotiation between the three groups more difficult.

As one developer put it: “If there’s a policy, people don’t understand why local authorities don’t stick to it… That’s why communities are as angry with their local authorities as they are with us.”

Put simply, many Londoners simply do not believe that the local authority will act in the interest of residents.

Outsiders

Social psychology has long suggested that people identify with their own group and will take action if its identity is threatened by outsiders. Our research suggests that objections to new housing are sometimes as much about new residents as about the houses they will live in.

Locals fear that incomers will dilute the existing sense of community; “These yuppies breed like rats,” as one resident put it.


Place

Residents’ objections are often rooted in the fear that new development will change the character or identity of the place they call home, or will simply be of too‑poor quality. That’s because people come to have close connections with the area in which they live. In the same way that a home is more than a house, a place is often more than just a location.

Politics

Elected politicians provide an important democratic check on development. But we found examples of planning debates being hijacked for alternative agendas, or being used as a political football.

One director of planning said: “If we did not have the local MP whipping up opposition to the planning application, we would have gone through without much opposition.”

Engagement

Tokenistic and superficial engagement often leads to outright anger. A West London resident told us: “Developers change a couple of windows and hope that we will get tired.”

When people feel powerless they tend to protest, and it is no different when residents feel ignored by planners and developers.

Disruption

Residents also fear the noise and safety impacts from construction. In some areas of London development is so intense that construction has begun to feel like a permanent feature of daily life.

As one councillor explained to us: “There is always something going on: trucks going up and down; the roads are muddy; bits of pavement are cordoned off with the latest development hoardings; the noise. It’s just constant here.”

 

Town planning always involves trade‑offs and balancing the interests of different groups, and some communities’ opposition to new housing is deep‑seated and hard to shift. But offering someone a new playground when they are worried about the disruption construction will bring is not get you anywhere.

That’s why developers and local authorities need to invest more energy and time in understanding the causes local opposition, before trying to resolve them. Maybe then we’ll be able to accommodate London’s next phase of growth. 

Jo Corfield is communications manager at Centre for London. You can download the full report here

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What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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