5 December 2021

It’s time to increase the cost of Nimbyism

By Jonn Elledge

They’re at it again: the brave, brave souls whose single, overriding goal in life is to stymie attempts to tackle the housing crisis are fighting the good fight once again.

This time, the front line is to be found in Berkshire. Last week hundreds of residents gathered in the cold outside Maidenhead town hall to protest against proposals for 2,000 new homes on the local golf course. The course in question, it’s worth noting, is right next to Maidenhead station, which will soon, thanks to Crossrail, have direct trains to the West End, City and Canary Wharf, making it exactly the sort of place we should be building new homes. The average house price in the town is £575,183, a fact which suggests (stop me if I’m getting too technical here) that more people would like to live in the town than it can currently contain.

Those who are already there, though, aren’t having any of it: instead they want the golf course to be a new open space, known as Maidenhead Great Park (lot of Windsor-envy over in Maidenhead, clearly). This will no doubt be lovely, but it won’t do much to help those with links to the town who want to start families – or, come to that, anybody else who’d like to live there and can’t. If the campaigners care about these people, they’re keeping it quiet.

Of course, Maidenhead isn’t unique: it’s not even unusual. You can find people protesting against housing developments all over the place. Some demand new homes should be restricted to brownfield land; then others inevitable object to building on that, too, on the grounds that local roads or GPs or schools are under pressure or, sometimes, with an honesty that is almost admirable, because they just don’t want new people coming into the area. One group on the distinctly high-rise on Isle of Dogs once prevented new homes being built on the site of a petrol station, which was silly. Another in Richmond objected to people building towers in Stratford, 15 miles away on the other side of London, on the grounds that – on an exceptionally clear day, of the sort which don’t come around very often – they’d be able to just about see them behind St Paul’s. Which is even sillier. But nobody stopped them. The local MP was on their side.

I have, in all my years being furious on the internet about this sort of thing, started noticed something about Nimby campaign groups. They tend to be quite – sorry to be blunt about this – old. People from this demographic are more likely to be homeowners, with a financial stake in keeping house prices up, even if they’ve convinced themselves that isn’t their motive at all. They’re also less likely to have first-hand experience of being on the sharp end of the housing shortage.

More than that, though, retirees are more likely to have time to campaign. So why not? If you can prevent development you don’t approve of and keep your house price booming with no downside risk for yourself, then why wouldn’t you do it? Incentives matter.

So, if we’re going to fix the housing crisis, we need to adjust the incentives. We need to increase the cost of Nimbyism.

I’ve toyed with the idea of a Nimby tax, in which members of any group that exists to block housing development would have to pay money to the Treasury for the privilege. But I can’t really see how you’d do that in practice and, let’s be honest, it’s not the sort of thing that this boomer-loving chancellor is likely to go for anyway.

A more plausible prospect is tinkering with the rules of the planning system: charge a fee for objecting to a new development; make sure planning departments are only allowed to consider official complaints. A system of Nimby licences – with massive fines for anyone found objecting to housing development without permission – might serve such the same purpose.

But these systems would be leaky: I’m not sure how you stop councillors from responding to angry letters or facebook comments and blocking developments themselves. So perhaps we should try something more baroque. Anyone who objects to a housing scheme is entered into a lottery. We’ll see if opposition is quite so fierce when those who express it face a one in 500 chance of a fine/compulsory purchase/seeing their garden seized by the council and turned into flats (delete according to level of venom and taste).

The truth is, I don’t really know what the best way of increasing the cost of Nimbyism is: this is uncharted ground. But I am sure we do need to increase it, to make sure that objections are made primarily because proposed developments are bad, and not merely because those doing the objecting are retired, rich and bored. Individual Nimbys may deny it, but the Nimby movement as a whole is blighting lives and hurting families. Shouldn’t there be some cost to that?

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Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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