Where next for housing reform?
Nimbys get a bad press. They live in attractive houses in expensive areas but want to deny that chance to others. They are a powerful lobby motivated by selfishness who often behave badly – check out the recent viral video of a local woman hurling abuse, and a chair, at Camden Councillors when a planning decision didn’t go her way. They have climbed up the housing ladder and grown rich on an asset boom that has more to do with Bank of England policy than hard work.
But there’s another reading. In fact, Nimbys are small-c conservatives by disposition. They love the area in which they live and they fear losing something when new development arrives. Michael Oakeshott said conservatives are the sort of people who view change as deprivation. “A storm which sweeps away a copse and transforms a favourite view”, he observed, is precisely that sort of change. So then is green fields being swallowed up by a new housing development.
Nimbys aren’t all philosophers though. They also realise that new developments can impact the value of their property. They have plans, want to leave money to their children or be able to afford elderly care – perfectly legitimate ambitions. Suddenly, that is thrown into jeopardy by building work.
So what can the Government do about it? Informed by Policy Exchange’s work on Building Beautiful, which proved in 2018 that if you built new homes in designs and styles that were popular with the public, you could overcome Nimby objections. Traditional-looking architecture, on tree-lined streets as much as possible, could win over every social class. People didn’t object to new housing, Policy Exchange showed, but wanted developments that would enhance their local area rather than spoil it.
Most recently, an idea put forward by Ben Southwood and Dr Samuel Hughes in their Policy Exchange paper Strong Suburbs, argued for individual streets to be given a vote on how they might redevelop. A row of suburban semi-detached houses might vote to redevelop collectively as a terraced street. The new properties would be worth much more and be vastly more spacious. It’s ambitious but no more so than the developments carried out by the Victorians who transformed the urban space and created housing that remains by far the most popular to this day.
Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, the newly appointed Housing Communities and Local Government Secretary, arrives at a crucial moment. Will the Government continue to push through planning reforms that take some power away from councils and the Nimby lobby and give developers more certainty over new developments, allowing them to invest in quality materials rather than spend on legal disputes? Can Gove also find a way to thread the needle so that new developments are built in designs and styles that are popular with the public, so that Nimbys become “Yimbys” and new builds enhance rather than detract from local places? Can he do all this while holding together a coalition in the Conservative Party that on the one hand sympathises with the Nimby lobby while simultaneously realising that if young people can’t get on the housing ladder, the chances are they won’t ever become Conservatives?
In all the Government briefs he has held, Gove has chosen to stand up to vested interests and fought to be, as he has termed it, a “warrior for the dispossessed”. It is those not on the property ladder who are the dispossessed when it comes to housing policy. But Gove’s greatest challenge will be fixing a system that at present seems designed to create more Nimbys than new houses.