27 July 2023

A five-point plan to get Nimbys to accept housing on the Green Belt


I’m no Tory, but I find Michael Gove endlessly interesting. His time as education secretary, whatever you think of the results, was enormously consequential. Likewise, it is tragic that his brief stint as a potentially great liberal prison reformer at the Ministry of Justice was cut too short by the Brexit bunfight.

This week, Gove set out his stall as a possible once-in-a-generation housing secretary. He made a number of interventions that he clearly hopes will kick start the house-building boom in this country that is so long-overdue.

Speaking to just about anyone who would listen, Gove gave the impression that he and his officials had somehow worked out how to achieve the unachievable: building enough new houses to turn Gen Z into home-owning Tories while not significantly disrupting the holy of holies of the true blue heartlands, the Green Belt.

It is tragic that Gove is almost certainly only half-way there (Jon Bon Govi, anyone?). There is lots to admire in his approach, such as the extension of Cambridge and Leeds, the focus on brownfield, allowing for retail and office spaces to be converted to residential, and the drive for better urban density. Done right, this could produce a fair number of new homes.

But, as many have pointed out – including the editor-in-chief of CapX – we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that this will be enough to deliver the vast number of new houses this country needs if it is to remain a property-owning democracy.

Sad as I am to say it as a contented resident of a home counties market town, we must build on some of the Green Belt. And while the Prime Minister has made clear his pledge to protect the leafy shires, there were hints in some of Gove’s language that he was teetering towards a way of promoting and managing Green Belt building that could bring a fair number of people like me alongside it – a way of converting Nimbys into Yimbys.

I know this, because I’ve spent a lot of time speaking in focus groups to normal people in normal places (not dissimilar to where I live) about this very issue.

The first thing to say is that most people are not Nimbys. Most people don’t get up in the morning thinking about launching petitions or chaining themselves to trees.

The second thing is that while they might not be wildly enthusiastic about being overlooked by an ugly new development, they do understand that we need more new homes. They recognise that there is a reason why their kids can’t afford to buy a home and raise a family in the same street as them.

So what would it take to convert them from lying down in front of the diggers to actively welcoming them?

It is of course overly simplistic, but here is my five-point manifesto for new housing in the home counties, as spelt out by normal voters in focus groups. It is telling that absolutely none of these things are reliable features of the few developments that do spring up.

  1. Any new housing development must – must – have the supporting infrastructure alongside it. GPs, schools, roads, shops and the rest. Roads especially are a must. Too often this doesn’t happen, and local people notice the consequences straight away.
  2. Developments should have genuinely affordable housing integrated throughout. If a development is to be built, local people must be able to envisage their grandkids being able to use it to get on the property ladder.
  3. New developments should be distinct communities, with borders and town centres. Normal people don’t like seeing their towns and villages being endlessly extended – much better to have a completely new settlement with its own infrastructure.
  4. Housing should be sustainable in terms of both its impact on the local environment and the global climate emergency. People believe in global warming and they worry about it. Don’t read too much into Uxbridge ULEZ rebellion.
  5. Finally, new houses should be architecturally sympathetic to the local vernacular. Personally, I quite like the clean lines of modernism, but given a choice, normal people would pick Poundbury over Le Corbusier every time. And when the other option is normally the mushrooming of hideous red boxes staining the local countryside, who can blame them?

There, that’s it. If Michael Gove (or for that matter Lisa Nandy) could deliver – not promise, but actually deliver – housing proposals that ticked all these boxes, then it might not be necessary to shy away from Green Belt building after all. Yimbys are there for the making.

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Ed Dorrell is a partner at Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.