NIMBYism and social inequality: a suggestion

It is we who are the problem

1. The availability of land is an incredibly sensitive issue because there is an invisible “elephant in the room”. That is us. That is you and me and all our friends and relatives who live in houses near to, or on the edge of settlements. We all fiercely object to anything that might disrupt the convenience of our lives. This is most extreme in rural areas where we have either grown up or settled in peaceful places where we can enjoy fresh air, the countryside - and an excellent annual increase in the value of our houses. We are all NIMBYs.

2. We elect our councillors. They put themselves forward for election under a manifesto that they think we will like. We have the choice. When we vote, we are usually voting for no new development. Our councillors know that and respect our choice. So nothing gets built.

3. Of course we all agree that we need more houses. The result is that we all fight for houses to be built “somewhere else”. Rural house owners are strongly supported in planning law; we can organise effectively in a community; many of us have time to devote to such a worthy cause, and we have the money to fight. Against us are over two million people who want a house to rent or buy or a plot to build our own. However, that vast group is spread everywhere. They have no method of communicating together, let alone taking action. Only Central Government can help them. This government seems determined to do so. Does it have the courage? Has the time come when we need to accept the necessity for change?

4. The recent white paper acknowledges this problem in the round. It talks about methodology, standardisation, brownfield land, reports and responses. But councillors are no longer in nappies. They avoid building houses because that is what their electors want. The white paper fails to accept that ultimately the solution can be reached only by us. The whole issue cannot be fixed by Government alone.

5. Too few local authorities (“LPAs”) have a plan that will result in enough houses being built. Successive governments have been pressing LPAs for 20 years, but councillors do not eat carrots and the Government has no sticks.

6. We often blame LPA planning staff. Not quite fair. Most LPA offices are hives of frustrated creativity. If the staff were released to create the towns and villages of tomorrow, they would be up to it. They would be looking twenty years ahead in the local plan, instead of planning for five years and pretending for another fifteen years. However, my guess would be that the planning department leadership may be inadequate. Probably the problems are spread more widely. One situation will be different from another.

It’s time to speak softly and carry a big stick

7. I suggest that the Government should go for the ultimate insult: special measures (“SM”). Send a top team into a planning department to lead, to guide, and to train and release the constraints. This not like taking a hospital or school into special measures. It is simply a planning department. It may need just one new person, or maybe several. It would be essential that the existing head of planning should go. The SM would stay as long as they were needed. That might be one year or three years.

8. The new leader would require power to over-rule the elected officers. Difficult to draw the rules, but not impossible. The Council will know that the new team will disappear just as soon as they get their act together.

9. Why would it work? Simple: because the hit is to where it hurts most - not to a councillor’s pocket but to his/her pride. Just imagine you are a councillor. You have been spending the last five years telling your friends and relatives how you have preserved the District and created this and that; how your schools are best, what you have achieved for your community. Then the Government puts your planning department into SM and reduces your power.

10. At a stroke you would no longer be a pillar of the community; rather, pilloried by the community. The following May, people would vote for a councillor who would get things reversed, get things done, avoid the embarrassment. Now, if that became the law, do you not think that 90% of delinquent LPAs would suddenly be finding housing sites like a flock of returning swallows?  

Social inequality

11. This issue boils down to our attitude to each other. It is absolutely natural that we all prefer the company of people like us. As soon as we are able to choose where to live, we choose to go where we will fit in. We also try to exclude people who we think will not fit in. That applies to every community of every type, everywhere. That is the basis of NIMBYism. It is also the basis of the “museum” attitude which has preserved every building more than 100 years old. We must face this truth.

12. The Romans loved to retire to the country. We do too. Maybe most of the intervening generations have also striven to do so. That is self-evidently because we all enjoy rural peace and the absence of obviously stressful surroundings. Why can we not balance great cities with great rural communities, prosperous, peaceful and yet ever changing?

13. The truth is that we hate to classified as NIMBYs or snobs - but we are. That is not because we are inherently “nasty” it is because we have developed instincts for our survival over millennia. Over thousands of years, we have had to adapt many instincts in order to develop in communities. Today we regard ourselves as civilised. We hate to deny fairness, democracy and equal opportunity - but in housing, we do. So surely we can be brave enough to look ahead beyond five years and plan for a country where our descendants will be as comfortable as the ghosts of our ancestors now are, as they sleep in church yards where every holly bush and distant view is protected against the deprivations of developers.

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