“Good Grief… anything but address the elephant… the illogical Nimbys” (comment on my last blog post, received via twitter)
I’ve been struggling with “not in my back yard” for a while, almost as bad as the “elephant in the room”.
The Times reported this week a speech by Shelter’s Polly Neate: “Ugly new homes breed nimbys, builders told“.
Canada’s Globe and Mail tells us “Margaret Atwood is a NIMBY – and so are most of us“.
It got me wondering when we all started this absurd Americanised name calling. Wikipedia identifies its first use as in 1980, corroborating a google ngram viewer search which traced its published use back to 1980…
These searches are addictive by the way…
So the derogatory phrase was created by the PR department of a chemical company responsible for the Love Canal pollution scandal that practically singlehandedly led to modern US environmental law in relation to land contamination. Smell a rat?
When someone is objecting to or protesting about something happening in their area, how tempting is it to disregard the objection by labelling it as “nimby” but it’s an ugly blunderbuss of an expression. What if the objection or protest is justified? Who is going to stand up for an area if it isn’t those who live there? Was Jane Jacobs a nimby then? Why does the European Convention on Human Rights protect rights to property (paragraph 1 of the 1st protocol) and to private and family life (article 8)?
The answer is in the respective qualifications to those rights:
– nothing in the right to property “shall impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest”
– the right to private and family life is subject to such interference “as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Of course we know where the finger is being legitimately pointed when people are called out as nimbys – at those who are motivated by overly selfish motives – tranquility and wealth for the few, regardless of the wider public interest. However, are attitudes in fact changing when it comes to housing? A February 2017 report by the National Housing Federation, Demise of the NIMBY: changing attitudes to building new homes, would appear to suggest so.
Predictably, ministers have been on the bandwagon:
Sajid Javid in his speech to Conservative party conference in 2016:
“Everyone agrees we need to build more homes.
But too many of us object to them being built next to us.
We’ve got to change that attitude.
So my message today is very clear: it’s time to get building.”
He doesn’t use the “n” word but the reporting of the speech picks up the signalling, because the word is so populist – we all know (or think we know) what it means:
– Sajid Javid declares war on ‘Nimbys’ who stand in the way of badly-needed new homes (The Independent)
– Sajid Javid attacks ‘nimbyism’ as he calls for 1m new homes (BBC website)
Gavin Barwell was more direct in his speech to the CPRE on 20 February 2017:
“…there are some people who claim the CPRE is merely a respectable front for nimbyism – that behind your public objectives is a private and unrelenting refusal to accept any kind of new development in rural areas.
Of course I know that’s nonsense.
You recognise that well-designed new settlements in sustainable locations can take the pressure off the green belt and you have an unparalleled legacy in influencing the planning system, particularly in the years after the war.
Your vision for garden cities, towns and villages has been adopted by the government. So has your preference for community-design, with extra power and resources for local areas to make this happen.
So now you have got the government behind your ideas I would challenge you to go a step further and prove your detractors wrong.
Support local communities in their quest for good design and actively seek out and champion the best-designed developments – so no one can say your words are not backed up by deeds.”
Is the CPRE a nimby organisation? Well it is certainly depressing to see that members have at their disposal on the CPRE website a copy-and-paste draft letter of objection.
Note the passage in the draft letter that suggests that the objector should draw where relevant on any relevant neighbourhood plan. The Government is of course anxious to distance neighbourhood plans from neighbourhood protectionism. For instance, this is John Howell MP speaking in a debate on neighbourhood planning on 3 July 2017 about those who promote neighbourhood plans:
“I should say at this point that in the main we are not talking about communities who are anti-development; we are talking of communities who want to embrace new housing for the long-term sake of their communities and to ensure that facilities such as pubs and sports clubs do not fall into disuse. They also want new housing above all to cater for younger people and families. There is nothing for the Government to fear here about being in the world of the nimby; neighbourhood plans have allocated some 10% more housing than it was originally suggested they should provide by their district or borough councils. From that point of view, they have been a great success.”
This is an assertion which is difficult to square with experience. Time and again development is being delayed or thwarted by neighbourhood plans that have been made following the most light touch of examination procedures.
Yimbyism is of course the self-referential counter-balance to anti-housing development interests.
London YIMBY’s report “Yes In My Back Yard: How To End The Housing Crisis, Boost The Economy And Win More Votes was published by the Adam Smith Institute in August 2017. It is disappointing that their proposed solutions would entail further disruptive legislative change (not going to happen) and don’t to me at least (disclosure, I’m presumably part of the problem as one of the “armies of planning lawyers and consultants” on which “billions of pounds” are apparently spent, referred to in the report) seem to be practical in the sense of delivering a simpler, more effective, fairer system:
“We propose three policies that would hand power back to residents; ways of solving the housing crisis that will also win political parties votes. Each would make a huge difference alone; together they could have a transformative effect on the housing situation in Britain:
1. Allowing individual streets to vote on giving themselves permitted development rights, to build upwards to a maximum of six storeys and take up more of their plots.
2. Allowing local parishes to ‘green’ their green belts, by developing ugly or low amenity sections of green belt, and getting other benefits for the community in turn.
3. Devolving some planning laws to the new city-region mayors including the Mayor of London. Cities could then decide for themselves if they want to expand and grow and permit extra housing, or maintain their current size and character.”
It’s a new movement, originating a couple of years ago in San Francisco but gaining real traction. The New York Times reported in July on its second annual conference: California Today: A Spreading ‘Yimby’ Movement.
Yimbyism is good to see, as long it remains positive and is genuinely springing from communities rather than political activists. But we really need to avoid getting entrenched in “brexiteer”/”remoaner” style tribalism. As with Brexit, the underlying public policy issues are complex and often down to difficult political choices to be made against an impossibly complex economic, environmental and legal background. In a climate where simple messages, right or wrong, have greater potency to influence democracy than ever via social media and elements of the traditional media (and certainly greater potency than what the scorned “experts” may say) the message as to the need for housing and for essential infrastructure must be as clear and non-partisan as possible but at the same time we must treat those with opposing views with respect, winning the intellectual argument with the evidence. How to go about winning hearts and minds? There’s a lot of good sense in Shelter’s March 2015 report Addressing Our Housing Shortage: Engaging the Silent Majority. Labelling people as selfish and insular isn’t going to win any argument. QRED*
*quod referendum erat demonstratum
Simon Ricketts, 2 September 2017
Personal views, et cetera