How can we defeat NIMBYism? Here's a five-point manifesto

Terraced homes in Benwell show off their painted doors and windows in 2005 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Image: Getty.

Housing in Britain is a policy cluster bomb. Millions of people now own homes which are far more expensive than they ought to be. But if the government builds more houses, and house prices fall, many homeowners will feel betrayed, their wealth and financial security inexorably bound to their ownership of a home that has seen its value inflated by the failures of the housing market.

For politicians, this matters a great deal, because homeowners vote.

There are many reasons why housing in the UK remains so expensive. Interest rates have hit rock bottom, and more people want to live alone. But the shortfall in supply still remains an explanatory factor. We now build as many houses in a year as we used to build in just four and a half months in the late 1960s. A shortfall in supply has pushed up prices.

The result is that the total market value of the UK’s housing stock now exceeds the cost of building it by some £3.7trn: a cool 40 per cent of the net worth of the entire country.

Land itself is not particularly scarce. What is truly scarce is land on which permission to build has been granted. High land costs have given us ‘generation rent’ and pushed up inequality.

The problem is that there are around fourteen million homeowners whose wealth is contained in their ownership of housing assets. This wealth is arguably illusory. Either it sits there as bricks and mortar and depreciates, or it gets passed down via the bank of mum and dad to pay for a deposit, or as an inheritance which is then deployed to buy another, equally over-priced house. But this is a tough argument to win.

And here we encounter the NIMBY problem. In principle, people may recognise the case for building more houses, but this doesn’t mean they wish to see new houses built in their town or village, let alone on adjoining green land. While this is an arguably selfish reaction, people often respond that new developments will fray over-stretched local public services, spoil the local environment, and destroy the character of their community.


Politics is about building alliances and changing minds. To tackle the problems of NIMBYism, the benefits of new housebuilding must be localised, democratised, and shared across communities in the following steps.

1: Capture value. As Labour’s recent green paper on housing noted, government should work with local authorities to enable them to buy land at a price closer to its existing use value, rather than the windfall values that are assigned once permission to build has been granted.

2: Build better, denser cities. The most attractive, walkable and popular parts of many cities are in the historic centre – think Edinburgh’s Old Town or Bath’s Royal Crescent – with many more homes per acre than in outer suburbs. The simplest way of building up city centres is by allowing residents to add new floors or extend existing properties. Higher housing density makes sense so long as it is coupled with good design codes, green space, adequate funding and municipal infrastructure to ensure that places are liveable. We should permit residents to democratically set their own design codes and determine planning permission to extend and modify properties.

3: Build more affordable housing on the green belt. Parishes generally have no right to amend their own green belts and can only allow very limited development on them. Together with other neighbourhood planning areas, they should be allowed to approve building on green belt land if they are satisfied landowners will provide high-quality homes that local people can afford, and adequate funding for the municipal infrastructure that is essential for communities.

Historically, that has been almost impossible. Building on greenbelt land is still subject to the requirement of “openness”, a nebulous stipulation around preserving the countryside’s open character that causes endless court battles and discourages building housing for those who need it most.

4: Enable councils to plan properly. Councils must have the freedom to negotiate with developers and impose real conditions upon them. Shelter has campaigned to fix the current system of ‘viability tests’ that is riddled with loopholes, allowing developers to get out of building affordable housing by saying they overpaid for land. We must give councils the powers to secure development of the standards and specifications they desire.

5: Empower councils with more devolution. As high-street shops close, many city centres are struggling. New student accommodation owned by universities and local institutions has had a transformative effect on some places, but more is needed. City councils and new regional mayors should have greater powers to spend tax revenues on addressing local housing supply and transport infrastructure.

Andrew Hindmoor is a professor of Politics at Sheffield University. John Myers is co-founder of the London YIMBY campaign. 

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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