14 March 2022

Blocking new housing to save a car park is a new Nimby nadir


When you boil it right down to the fundamentals, Nimbyism is about lies. Nobody who actually tries to track the reasons politicians offer up for strangling growth and development can fail to realise it.

The actual animating idea – that British homeowners bought not only a property but the community in which it is situated, as it was at the moment they bought it – is absurd, and most of them have sufficient reserves of shame to realise as much.

So instead, we are subjected to this elaborate theatre of objections, each naturally extremely specific and applicable only to this or that corner of the country. More homes yes – but not here! That the end result of this logic is ‘no homes’ is unfortunate, but certainly not what either the conscientious residents of Little Whinging or their Member of Parliament intended.

Thus, to pick only the most recent example, we see the Government preparing to concrete Britain’s shale gas well, on the cusp of a global energy crisis, because the actual solution is supposed to be renewable energy. Yet what happens when someone actually tries to build a solar farm? The local Tory MP (a certain M Hancock) objects, of course

Naturally, Hancock takes pains to explain that he is a strong supporter of solar power, so long as they are ‘in the right place, with strong and even enthusiastic local support’ – the right place, it turns out, is always somewhere else.

But even that pales in comparison to Grant Shapps’ decision, at the behest of local Conservative councillors to call in and block proposals by Transport for London to turn a Tube station car park into housing.

Enfield Council had approved a plan (behold it, in all its apparent awfulness) which would have delivered 351 new homes in Cockfosters, including ‘40% affordable housing” as well as ‘4,000 square metres of open space, a new commercial space and public cycle parking’.

What grounds does the Secretary of State offer for his decision to block it? ‘I am concerned that the parking provision at the station would be inadequate.’

Even for one well on the way to being radicalised by the housing crisis, it is actually difficult to articulate just how abysmal a decision this is. The sheer extent to which the rent-seeking interest overpowers the Government’s purported priorities is genuinely astonishing.

It isn’t just the headline loss of new housing units, although that does add up to several hundred new families (and that just at the initial sale) missing out on an opportunity to build a life in Enfield. 

Building housing near stations is also one of the most obvious ways in which planning policy could contribute towards reaching Net Zero, making London that bit more walkable and public transport more accessible. Instead, the Secretary of State intervenes to save a car park.  (Let us also not forget that the Government also expects TfL to raise funds by selling land! Perhaps we should force the good burghers of Enfield to match the developers’ cash offer and buy the carpark if they really want to save it.)

Then there’s the old lie that this or that housing development has to be stopped because its on greenfield land, when there is so much brownfield space yet to develop. This misty-eyed attitude towards industrialised agricultural land is deluded at the best of times, but here again the true hollowness of that rhetoric is exposed.

Let’s be clear: building on actual green space around tube stations should be perfectly acceptable. The Adam Smith Institute’s proposal for unlocking land within ten minutes of a station is a good one, and mirrors the way the Metropolitan Railway built a big-chunk of north-west London.

But whilst there is green space around Cockfosters Station, this proposal didn’t involve building on any of it. Shapps has stepped in to save a patch of concrete. When proposals such as this can go through every stage of approval, only to be spiked on such specious grounds, it is no mystery that prudent housebuilders engage in ‘land banking’.

This was by no means a perfect development, but if you can’t build density in London, right on top of the necessary infrastructure, the odds of getting it built anywhere else are remote.

Yet even by the standards of Tory NIMBYism, moves such as this are particularly short-sighted, because building in London is very much in the party’s long-term interests. It would at once ease pressure to develop their leafy shire heartlands and slow the rate at which disaffected urban voters get pushed out into the commuter belt and start turning those heartlands red, as they have Brighton and Canterbury.

Whilst the long-term weakness of the London Conservatives is a problem that CCHQ needs to take more seriously, in the short-to-medium term it is simply madness to store up so much political trouble for the sake of clinging on to a handful of marginal seats in the capital for a little longer. Theresa Villiers is going to lose her seat sooner or later; she need not take several hundred colleagues down with her.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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