29 April 2024

Nimby Watch: The village green preservation society


In a new series, CapX is celebrating the way our planning system tries its very best to save the country from affordable housing or decent infrastructure. This week, Bristolian Nimbys are up in arms over a single home…

So which glamorous destination within an easy commute of your flat are we off to this week, dare I ask? Hackney? Finsbury Park? Well that just shows what you know, oh alter ego of little faith, because this time we’re nowhere near London. Instead, it’s Henleaze, a suburb roughly three miles north of central Bristol.

How thrillingly exotic. Who’s trying to build what? A single landowner is trying to build themselves a home. 

One home? They’re going to solve Bristol’s burgeoning housing crisis with one poxy home? I never said that he was. Nonetheless, the evil capitalist determined to concrete our green and pleasant land today is an individual, who merely wants to build himself a home, at the far end of a 1970s cul-de-sac named Ridgehill. Here’s the green and pleasant land in question, as captured on Google Maps in 2019:

That seems quite reasonable, if a bit unambitious. There are those who think it entirely unreasonable, alas. They include some of the existing residents of Ridgeway, who claim they’ve long used that privately owned patch of grass at the end of their street as a site for picnics and other get togethers. The grass has been cut; paths have been laid; ‘local children have added to the area’s natural beauty by painting stones,’ one neighbour told the Bristol Post

So, what, the community seems to have just… decided it’s theirs? I’m not sure how I’m meant to feel about that. Luckily we have the planning system to tell us. Where a patch of land has been used for public recreation for 20 years or more, you can get it designated as a ‘village green’, and thus protect it from development. Helpfully enough for the people of Ridgehill, the annual picnic apparently dates back to 1988; one neighbour has claimed, though this is hard to confirm, that when the street was first built in the late 1970s, this patch of land was marked as ‘public open space’.

Shame they didn’t mark all land as such, then Henleaze needn’t have been bothered with providing houses for any of those people at all. Not everyone agrees with all this, to be fair. The coverage has begrudgingly admitted that some of the neighbours are on the landowner’s side (though none, that I can see, who’ve been willing to put their name in the papers). One complained that there was only ‘only one annual event that takes place in this space, for a couple of hours’, and that the Nimbys’ real concern was preserving their shortcut to Tesco. ‘This is a minority group,’ they said, ‘and if you weren’t a member of the neighbourhood watch, I doubt you would know what the plans were for this space’.

Nonetheless, the owner’s attempt to block the village green designation seems to have failed, on the grounds it was submitted before his own plans. The planning committee voted unanimously against his right to build a house on his own land, cheered on by local Tory councillor Steve Smith, whose Twitter account suggests he really, really likes getting things designated as village greens.

How do you imagine this story was headlined in the Bristol Post?

Was it ‘Man blocked from building dream home on own land’? Oooh, close, but no. They went with, ‘Popular picnic spot in north Bristol cul-de-sac saved from housing plan‘. Rejoice, rejoice.

Okay, but if the land has been used as a public amenity since the 1970s, isn’t this the planning system working as intended? Perhaps, but the story highlights three things. One is that property rights count for less than local Nimbys’ ability to manipulate the planning system in their favour. All this guy wanted was a place to retire – but his ownership matters less than the fact that a group of his neighbours, who may be in the minority and may be mainly concerned about a slightly longer walk to the supermarket, have occasionally used his land for a picnic. That feels, at the very least, not great.

Secondly, one oft-heard Nimby complaint is that the big housing developers just deliver boxy, Identikit homes. If we had more self-build, they say, we’d get more variety and better quality. Well: this guy wanted to build his own home – and it turns out they don’t want that either.

The third thing is that, even if this is the planning system working as intended, it surely seems worth asking if that is how we want it to work.

One home is not going to solve the city’s housing crisis to be fair. One shortcut to Tesco certainly isn’t. 

Jonn Elledge’s new book, A History of the World in 47 Borders: The Stories Behind the Lines on Our Maps, is out now.

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

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