Arguments against new development, especially housing development, are usually entirely selfish. This isn’t to say that concern for our self-interest isn’t entirely normal but rather that NIMBY arguments are seldom presented in terms of selfish interest but rather use conservative emotion around heritage, environment and ecology mixed with assumptions that the business of building things is driven entirely by greed and speculation.
Over the last 70 years we have constructed a planning system prioritising reasons to stop development while, as with the current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), proclaiming a presumption in favour of development. If you peek inside the lid of the planning system, what you’ll find is thousands – yes thousands – of specific policy reasons why development should be stopped. These range from broadly sensible ideas about protecting flood plains and sustaining historic rights of way through to policies that make almost no sense at all such as the one preventing the use of a former velvet mill site in Denholme for a development of homes for social rent.
We have policies designating land as important in dozens of ways – heritage, ecology, special landscape, archaeology. We fuss about trees, orchids, badgers, butterflies and bats – let’s not overlook assorted amphibians. Anyone who has lived in (or in my case adjacent to) a listed building will have had the joy of dealing with planners - made even more fun when your listed building is surrounded by protected trees and located next to a conservation area.
If you want to oppose development, all of these policies can be brought to bear (one of my favourites is the one about being near a World Heritage Site – in Saltaire this is preventing the replacement of long derelict greenhouses with some new homes). And, as you arrive at the planning committee, you can be assured that the members are keen to find reasons to prevent development – after all politicians are in the business of votes and developers don’t have votes, future residents don’t have votes, NIMBYs do.
We are in the middle of the first real national debate about planning and its purpose since the current system was introduced in the 1940s. And this had meant that NIMBYs, instead of organising locally to oppose development, have attempted to define their position (other than we want to preserve the value of our homes and stopping new homes is the surest way to achieve this end). There are four aspects to the NIMBY position:
1. The housing crisis is not the result of the planning system.
2. NIMBYism is about protecting nature.
3. There is enough housing and land for housing already.
4. Reformed planning will mean the “wrong houses in the wrong places”.
NIMBYs are aided in each of these objectives by people who are not NIMBYs. Planners, or at least the bodies that represent planners like the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), repeatedly say the problem doesn’t lie with their members or the planning system but with the land market and especially development behaviour around land banking and build out rates.
Local councils and their national body the Local Government Association (LGA) have also argued strongly that they are granting lots of permissions that don’t get developed showing, they claim, that the problem doesn’t lie with councils and planners but with developers.
NIMBYs have latched onto these arguments using them as the basis for their support of a planning system that, most of the time, favours existing homeowners. They go further by arguing that the objective assessment of housing need is unnecessary and that local authorities should determining planning applications purely based on local considerations. To move away from planning committees making essentially arbitrary decisions based on short term local political considerations would, they argue (and the LGA and RTPI support them in this argument) represent the undermining of local democracy. It is every homeowner’s right to be able to prevent development by lobbying a local planning committee.
The problem is that only 2% of the public ever engage with the planning system. This 2% generate headlines in the local paper with their carefully painted protest signs and marches by school children roped in to oppose developing housing in which they might live some time. Photographs of stern looking residents perhaps accompanied by a local councillor or an MP seem common enough (I’ve posed for a few) but the reality is that the planning system works well for the few organised opponents and badly for the thousands of people looking for housing.
But the argument here is a false one. Nobody is saying that the planning system is the sole cause of our housing crisis (low interest rates, rising wages and immigration all, for example, have an effect) but to say, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the lack of housing supply isn’t substantially down to planning is wrong. Everything about the system is sclerotic, from how it’s resourced through to how long local plans take to draw up (Bradford started with its plan in 2008 and still doesn’t have a plan with agreed housing allocations in 2021).
The LGA point to the number of permissions granted and tell us that over a million homes haven’t been built despite getting those precious permissions. As plenty of people have pointed out, this misrepresents the idea of a planning permission. There’s a site, old railway sidings, in Cullingworth that is now on its third permission in the last 20 years. It remains undeveloped – perhaps because the permission granted is unviable, maybe because the landowner wants too much money. In Bradford alone there are hundreds of acres of brownfield sites that, at some point or another, have had a permission granted for development only to sit there undeveloped.
Then we’re told that this is because the owners are sitting on the land as a speculation, knowing that its value will rise because, you know, that’s what happens to land. Developers are greedy we’re told again and again. But these sites are not owned by developers, indeed their owners are often actively looking for developers (at least for a year or so after getting the permission). The problem is that the developers also know that people (their customers) don’t want houses in run down inner cities so development of, for example, the former Drummond Mills site on Lumb Lane in Manningham doesn’t happen because it is impossible to build homes there for less than the local selling price. If it costs £100,000 to build a house and a house the same size round the corner is selling for £75,000, you’ll probably not bother developing.
Planning permissions are a necessary but, in many cases, not sufficient reason for development to happen. Big housing developers bank land to maintain a pipeline of work for the business, but they are not applying for permissions then sitting on that permission until it lapses, to do so would be a waste of that business’s limited resource (time and money). A much bigger problem is how determined opposition (often surprisingly well funded) can delay a development for literally decades.
Meanwhile, out in the leafy suburbs, a different alliance is formed between NIMBYs and green activists. As one, Ros Coward from The Rainforest Alliance proclaims “Nimby should no longer stand for “not in my back yard” but “nature in my back yard”. In a Guardian article, Coward sets out how she is opposing new housing in Wandsworth because there’s a poplar tree she likes. And she goes on to describe how all the NIMBY campaigns up and down the country, far from being the actions of selfish homeowners, are run by people whose main concern is nature. We’re told about the Community Planning Alliance an umbrella group for 460 local campaign groups. Each one probably has a story to tell about some trees, or bats or badgers. There will be talk about chalk streams, ancient woodland, flowers, butterflies and orchids. The word biodiversity will be littered across hundreds of letters to planning officers, MPs and councillors.
According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government residential property accounts for 1.1% of England’s land use. Add in garden and suburban marginalia and we reach 5.9% of the land as housing. Nearly 85% of England is, in planning terms, undeveloped – agriculture, forest, heath, moor and marsh. To build 3 million houses at suburban densities (35/ha) would need about 75 square km. Sounds like a lot until you realise that this is 0.06% of England’s land area.
Even if all those 3 million homes were built on green belt, we would need less than 5% of that precious land. And nobody at all is proposing that all of England’s housing need could or should be met on green belt. If, for arguments sake, we assume that the use of green belt is double the use of other land (meaning roughly a third of the new homes would be on former green belt land) the amount of the green belt needed to build those homes represents just 1.5% of the total green belt.
It is true that building houses affects local environments (which is why we have all those rules about drainage, trees, bats, badgers, birds, beetles and flowers) but suburban development doesn’t have to be net negative for biodiversity. We can deliver better environmental outcomes from suburban development without compromising on the need for those new suburbs. The truth, however, is that no forecasts of housing demand, no OANs system, no “mutant algorithm”, results in the concreting over of the green belt. The absolute worst outcome suggests 5% of that green belt being *lost* and the reality would be around 1%.
Opposition to new housing on environmental grounds is entirely specious, there is no quantifiable environmental impact from housing development. And, if the local planning is done right, important things like ancient woodland, chalk streams and ancient archaeology can be protected. Those delightful old villages and towns can benefit from conservation areas, important scenery and vital ecology will get guarded by plans, all without the need to stop a single house being built.
“Well, if we don’t need much land to build the houses, let’s use the brownfield land”. So goes the response to all this explanation about how we can deliver on housing demand without concreting over England. The problem is that a lot of that brownfield land is in places people don’t want to live (those essentially valueless sites in inner city Bradford) and, even when the reuse of land is proposed, the NIMBYs are there with arguments about urban open space, ‘green lungs’ and so forth. Whether it’s underused former garage sites, old bus stations or the remnants of post-WWII slum clearance, local NIMBYs are there with there banners campaigning to stop new housing on brownfield sites because of a mulberry bush or a poplar tree. There’s even one campaign based on the apparent environmental and historical significance of some old sewage works.
So given that what NIMBYs like Ros Coward want is BANANAs (*build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone*), the campaigners need a different argument. And, once again there are some convenient folk who will tell you that the housing crisis isn’t about lack of housing but about the distribution of housing assets. Others will engage in complicated and convoluted arguments to show how if we forced people who only use one bedroom in a three-bedroom house to downsize then there’d be plenty. Another set of experts will tell us that the problem is empty homes, foreigners buying luxury flats or rich Londoners buying second homes. And then there are housing charities like Shelter and the housing professionals’ association, the Chartered Institute of Housing who say that the problem isn’t planning but rather that government isn’t giving councils and housing associations enough money to build new social homes. Of course, the NIMBYs will oppose those social homes too if they’re proposed for one of those brownfield sites with a tree.
The commonest argument from NIMBYs now is that suburban development (or luxury flats if you’re in the city) is the wrong housing in the wrong place. How can building three- and four-bedroom detached houses in Surbiton or Sutton Coldfield solve the housing crisis? Look at those housing waiting lists, those people can’t afford the prices for that suburban housing, it’s just developers being greedy. What we need is new council houses to replace the right-to-buy and these will, of course, be built on those brownfield sites in poor inner-city areas (so as not to risk smelly oiks arriving in our nice semi-rural suburb with their crime and their noise).
Meanwhile, the people who really do need better housing – tens of thousands of renters in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Oxford, and Bristol – don’t get what they want. If Shelter and the CIH had their way those renters would still be renters, just renting from the council rather than a private landlord. I’m sure that, while some would be happy with this (not least because the rent would be subsidised), it isn’t the home ownership that most aspire to. That will only come if you build a lot more suburban housing, places where they can do what their parents and grandparents did – settle down in a decent house with a garage and a garden to raise a family.
Britain’s housing crisis is a huge challenge and planning reform is one way to meet that challenge. We probably need to build 3 million new homes across all tenures to catch up with five decades of not building enough new homes and to meet emerging demand from new household formation and immigration. This is not a small order, and it cannot be done without making changes – painful ones for some people – to the planning system. Alongside planning change, we also need leasehold reform, better protection for private renters, stronger environment health enforcement, and new investment in social housing. But getting the land supply for at least 3 million homes should be the priority. If we do this in a way that meets suburban expectations, family formation and new working practices as well as economic development then one of the biggest drags on our economy and society is removed.
There is no good argument at the national level for the NIMBY position that meeting this need for homes can be met without increasing land availability in places people can access the jobs, schools, and leisure they demand. Getting that land allocation agreed needs a strategic national view and the willingness of local neighbourhoods to engage with the process of making plans for housing and associated infrastructure. Instead of simply defending a failed system, perhaps we should be talking about how to balance the interests of local communities and the urgent need to provide the homes for current and emerging generations. NIMBYs argue that the planning system works, that new housing is an environmental threat, that there is sufficient land supply, and that reform means the wrong homes in the wrong places. They are wrong in each case but too few people are saying that we can deliver for local communities – schools, health, businesses, active travel, public transport – and plan for the 3 million new homes we need to resolve our housing crisis.
Planning reform is not a threat to the environment, does not undermine community cohesion or infrastructure, and does not reduce local democracy. Done right it allows a more sustainable system involving more people and more communities in the planning process. Instead of just objecting to reform, let’s work to get the best possible system given competing priorities and demands.
I fear though that, in the end, NIMBYs gonna NIMBY.
Addendum: I've been asked what we should do with those value-free inner city sites in Bradford. If we are taking green space elsewhere the answer is to green them. I did a blog post setting out how this might work a while back - link here