23 April 2024

Britain needs a Yimby revolt


Twenty years have passed since the publication of the Barker Review of Housing Supply, the final report of an expert inquiry into the British housing market commissioned by the Blair government, and led by Bank of England economist Kate Barker. The Review issued a stark warning: if Britain wanted to limit future increases in real house prices to the European average, annual housebuilding numbers would have to roughly double. 

Needless to say, this doubling of housebuilding numbers has still not happened. There has not been a single year in which Britain came close to building the number of homes that Barker thought we would have to build every year. It is hard to see how this could be described as anything other than twenty years of abject policy failure. It has been a policy failure under Labour, a policy failure under the Conservative/LibDem coalition, a policy failure under the Conservative/DUP quasi-coalition, and a policy failure under the Conservative majority government. 

What is strange, though, is that this failure to do anything meaningful on the housing front coexists with a strong rhetorical commitment to building homes, at least in the abstract. If we judged politicians by their rhetoric rather than their actions, it would seem that there is a broad cross-party consensus on this. So if nearly everyone agrees on this, why does it never actually happen?

At one level, the answer is trivially simple: because at least in the short term, housebuilding is unpopular, and provokes resistance at the local level. Nimbys are well-organised, and very loud.

But that is not much of an answer. Politicians often do things that are wildly unpopular with sections of the electorate. Noisy protests groups may have a disproportionate impact on the national conversation, but their demands do not always translate 1:1 into actual policies. Despite persistent large-scale protests, we have not Just Stopped Oil, we have not Insulated Britain, we have not had a second referendum of Britain’s EU membership, we have not cancelled the NHS’s contracts with the private sector, we have not gone back to running budget deficits of 10% of GDP, and we have not abolished university tuition fees. 

So what is so special about Nimbys? Why do they have the power to block everything when other groups don’t? 

Essentially, politicians will go against the wishes of protest groups when they believe that a ‘silent majority’ is on their side, and – crucially – will act accordingly. In such cases, going against the pressure group means losing some votes, but winning others in the process. 

In principle, housing policy could follow the same pattern. A government could decide that angering some Nimbys is worth it, if it means winning over an equal or larger number of pro-housing, Yimby voters. Sacrifice the Nimby vote, grab the Yimby vote. 

And there lies the rub. So far, there has been no such thing as ‘the Yimby vote’. So far, frustration with the housing crisis has never manifested itself in the form of support for pro-Yimby policies. If pro-housing policies meant losing the Nimby vote, but winning the Yimby vote in exchange, it could be a viable electoral strategy. But if it means losing the Nimby vote without winning anything in return, it is not. It is not that there are no Yimby politicians in Britain: there are at least some Yimbys in all major parties. However, those Yimby politicians have so far not been able to count on anyone’s support, and are therefore isolated in their own parties. 

Yimbys lack class consciousness. They do not act upon their political preferences. They do not represent an electoral bloc that a political party, or a faction within a party, could woo. 

But what if they did? What if the Yimbys became politically self-aware? What if they started to systematically punish Nimby policies, and reward Yimby ones, ideally regardless of party affiliation or faction? What if there was a political price to pay for blocking much-needed housing development, and a political prize to be won for doing the opposite? 

These are the questions I try to answer in my new paper ‘Home Win: What if Britain Solved its Housing Crisis?, published this month by the Institute of Economic Affairs. It describes a possible future Britain in which the Yimbys wake up, and manage to push housing policy in their direction. 

I am not describing a utopia. I am merely describing a country where people are allowed to put bricks on top of other bricks, if doing so serves a useful purpose. Nonetheless, that Yimby Britain would be a much richer and happier place than the one we currently live in. 

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Kristian Niemietz is Editorial Director and Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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