Can you defeat NIMBYism by bribing NIMBYs?

Look at all that lovely space for houses. Image: Getty.

Can you bribe someone out of being a NIMBY?  We’re not sure, but we’re going to find out.

*Freeze frame* *Record scratch*

Yes, that's us, London YIMBY. You're probably wondering how a simple housing pressure group got into this crazy situation.

Nearly everyone in the incestuous world of housing and planning seems determined to ignore that the government has admitted that it wants the shortage of homes to get worse. But it’s right there, in black and white, in the instructions to Oliver Letwin’s housing review. The government has told good ol’ Ollie to make sure house prices keep going up – and not even slower than inflation.

The endless wonkish fights about obscure reforms are a total waste of time. The government could easily fix the housing crisis if it wanted to. It doesn’t. It’s even said so.

So the only hope to get any change before a government with different views appears is to find ways to make this government change its mind.

To recap: the government is so scared of the two-thirds of voters who are homeowners – let’s call them the homeowner-voter cartel – that it is terrified to do anything that might stop house prices going up. Can we find a way to turn NIMBYs into YIMBYs to convince the government that abundant housing would be popular?

Most of London, for example, is pretty sprawling. The attractive parts in the middle, like Bloomsbury, that people travel around the world to see, have five to ten times as much housing per hectare as the outer bits. Half of the homes in London are in buildings of only one or two floors.

EMU Analytics built this incredibly cool map for us to prove the point – the first ever map of cubic built volume density per hectare, plus the height and footprint of each building.

So you could take a single street near public transport in 1930s suburbia, have the residents pick a pretty design code, and rebuild to Georgian densities of say, six storeys with terraces, maisonettes and mansion blocks, increasing the total square footage by a factor of five – doubling or trebling the value of everyone’s original property in the process, but creating three to ten times as many homes that are individually much cheaper. What’s more, the end result can look much better than the original street if you pick a good design code.

That could easily add another five million homes in London alone, while making it a fairer, prettier, and more walkable city. Those extra homes will support more local shops and other fun stuff. And because it will be gradual, there should be plenty of time to add much needed infrastructure like schools and medical care too.

Will homeowners go for it? Do you know any homeowners who would like to double or treble their house price? Especially if they can say they’re fixing the housing crisis, being good for the environment, and making their street better while they’re at it? We’ve had some positive surveys but can we actually make it happen?

This week we’re announcing a trial to find out. Our team of volunteer architects and planners is keen to help homeowners on a single street decide what design code they want, and then get permissions for every homeowner to radically increase the amount of housing on their plot – without too much effect on the neighbours in the streets behind. (You can find out more here.)

The idea is that they’re just permissions. Nobody has to use them. You can just sit on them while some of the other homeowners use them, although we’re pretty confident many people will either sell to a local builder, or team up with one and move out for a while to end up with a new home and a big pot of cash. Over time the street will become a beautiful, uniform terrace, with lots more homes. There will be a bit of disruption and irregularity in the meantime, but that’s not the end of the world.

We’ll never get everyone on a street to agree, of course – but if we can get two-thirds happy with the design code then we will go ahead.

It’s already been done on a much smaller scale. Two rows of houses added a single storey in the Fitzroofs project in Primrose Hill. They did it the hard way: everyone unanimously agreed and all the building work was done at the same time, although not many not new homes were added. We’re aiming to be much more radical.

Would this idea be our first choice? In a different world, clearly not -- but the sooner we start building enough high-quality homes in the right places, the sooner we will end the housing crisis. So if we can find a win-win way to do it that can actually start now, why not?

If you know a homeowner who may be interested, please ask them to get in touch for a no-obligation discussion. None of this will cost them anything.

Perhaps we might even turn them YIMBY.

John Myers is the co-founder of London YIMBY, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.