9 August 2022

After decades of Nimbyism, are we any nearer a cure?

By Fiona Townsley

No one embodies the paradox of Nimbyism quite like Nicholas Ridley, Margaret Thatcher’s Environment Secretary and the man who popularised the term ‘Nimby’. In government he spearheaded the fight for development, while at the same time opposing plans for new housing near his own Cotswolds home.

Ridley’s case epitomises the problem with what Liz Truss calls ‘the worst vested interest we’ve got’ – people who agree with the need for development, but baulk at the idea of bearing its costs themselves. That manifests itself in countless local campaigns, not just against new housing, but roads, energy infrastructure and anything that might ‘blight the landscape’.

Indeed, the term ‘Nimby’ first cropped up in the 1970s in the US, when residents in New Hampshire and Michigan raised vociferous objections to nuclear power plants being built in their area. Fast-forward a few decades and we see the same vehement opposition to Rolls Royce’s small modular reactors here in the UK. Nimbyism is also the reason it took 70 years for a third runway at Heathrow to begin construction, not to mention the endless campaigns against wind farms and the Nimby-inspired moratorium on fracking.

But the biggest issue by far is still housing. This is nothing new. Way back in 1990, a Centre for Policy Studies report entitled ‘Nimbyism – the disease and the cure’ warned that high house prices would fuel inflation and increase homelessness – a problem that could only be resolved through housing development.

The paper suggested that we needed to build at least 3.5 million new homes by the turn of the century. Sadly, by 2000 we had managed just 1.345 million. In the 30 years since that report came out, 4.485 million new homes have been built, house prices have risen by 62% in real terms and homelessness has risen by a startling 82%. (It hasn’t all been doom and gloom, thankfully. The same CPS paper argued that the Ministry of Defence should sell off its land to allow for development. At the time the MoD owned 500,000 hectares of land in England, an area that has now reduced to 343,000 hectares thanks to a concerted effort at downsizing the estate.)

So, how best to tackle the scourge of Nimbyism?

One obvious solution is to offer local people compensation for change that affects them, rather than offering all the inconvenience and none of the benefit. HS2 is a good example of where this has been done. For those whose houses are affected by the new line, the Government has offered compensation, including buying properties at their unblighted value, while those who don’t want to sell may be entitled to a lump sum payment. In a similar vein, Boris Johnson has suggested offering free electricity for those who live in striking distance of a new Small Modular Reactor – an offer that looks extremely attractive given current energy prices.

As CapX’s editor John Ashmore argued in a recent piece, there are also ample opportunities for sensible development on green belt land. It’s difficult to overstate just how restrictive the green belt is. It covers 12.4% of all of England’s land, creating a productivity-sapping ring of steel around our most productive urban areas. And contrary to what you might imagine, this is not all rolling fields and unspoilt pasture land. Much of the green belt is within existing urban conurbations, and includes such rural gems as a disused nightclub in Bromley and a petrol station in Tottenham. We could easily build a swathe of new housing, in already built-up areas, without having the slightest effect on the green and pleasant land many of us rightly cherish.

We should be under new illusions though, particularly given the anti-housing positions adopted by both candidates for the Tory leadership so far. Thirty-two years on from ‘Nimbyism – the disease and the cure’, we look as far as ever from the remedy we need – and the ailment is starting to look terminal.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Fiona Townsley is a Research Intern at the Centre for Policy Studies.