12 January 2024

Nimbyism – the disease and the cure

By Richard Ehrman

For the next instalment of our ‘From the Archive’ series, we’re republishing a paper from 1990 identifying Nimbyism as one of the major policy challenges of the day. It provides a depressing reminder that the Centre for Policy Studies has been talking about the iniquity of the planning system, the anachronism of the green belt and the necessity of overcoming local opposition to development for decades. Ehrman points out that the high cost of housing directly reduces people’s living standards, creates overreliance on housing wealth and strangles growth in the most productive parts of the country. He even concludes with a prescient warning about the dangers of Britain’s entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which was to precipitate Black Wednesday two years later: ‘Soon we will no longer be able to afford the self indulgence of nimbyism’.

This essay, which we have abridged for clarity, proves that politicians cannot claim to have been unaware of the problems it describes – yet they have only gotten worse. 

The phrase ‘not in my back yard’ sprang to fame when it was used by Nicholas Ridley, then Secretary of State for the Environment, to describe the forceful local opposition to development that the building boom of the late 1980’s had stimulated. He called the protesters nimbies, it was a good word, it stuck, and now two years later everybody knows what a nimby is. Indeed, no sooner had Mr Ridley uttered the phrase, than he had his own efforts to protect his views in the Cotswolds thrown in his teeth. It’s a story that neatly sums up the very essence of the nimby problem. Everybody acknowledges the need for improvements in housing and transport, but most people do not want change to impinge too closely on them – thus often finding themselves on both sides of the argument.

Politicians of all colours have learnt how difficult it is to stand out against local tides of opinion, and to argue that although a development may seem an intrusion it will also bring growth and prosperity, opportunities and jobs as well more people and more traffic.

Local opposition to growth is understandable, especially when it seeks to preserve buildings or countryside of value. The danger of course is that the national interest will thereby go by default; and that in the end even central government will find it expedient to take the line of least resistance, and leave the awkward decisions to the next minister or until after the next election. There have been signs of that recently: the decisions to back down on a new town at Foxley Wood, to postpone the new rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel, to drop plans for new roads in London.

Anybody studying the problem of nimbyism has first to ask the most basic question – do we really need the scale of new development and building that industry and business claim? If so, that raises a long series of other problems: where is the new development required, how much of it do we need, and how can we make it acceptable to the public at large as well as to those directly affected?

Do we need more building?

The late 80’s building boom is now over, at any rate in the private sector. But the pressures that lay behind it remain, albeit dampened down by high interest rates an a slowing economy. The growth of the South East, the anticipated increase in the number of households between now and the end of the century, the explosive rise in road traffic, commuting and travel of all sorts, the requirements of richer consumers for shops and leisure facilities – all these pressures are here to stay, interest rates notwithstanding.

This paper will therefore argue that the current slowdown should not be the excuse to breathe a sigh of relief, and declare the problem over. Rather it is a good opportunity to take stock of the wider implications of nimbyism, and produce a coherent response to this conflict between economic growth and the environment.

Reconciling the conflict is meant to be the job of the planning system. When it was set up in 1947, as part and parcel of Labour’s efforts to build a planned socialist economy, the system was supposed to allocate land to different uses, according to some rational if ill-defined master plan. The national, the regional and the local interest were all, somehow, to be painlessly resolved, through the agency of local authorities.

That was the theory, but being under local control the system soon came to reflect the local preoccupations of local voters. It began to work for those already established in a place, rather than for those who might want to move there. So nowadays when people talk of nimbyism, they often use the word as shorthand for the tight planning policies through which it operates, and it is the costs and implications of those policies as well as the attitudes behind them, that are now beginning to affect the wider economy.

Quality of life

Another disagreeable consequence of not investing in our infrastructure is that it makes life much more unpleasant for most of us – for the holidaymaker trying to fly out of Gatwick in high summer, the motorist stuck in a jam on the M6, M1 or M25 (to name but three of the worst) and for the rail commuter whose train is often overcrowded, often cancelled, often delayed. It is not just the economy that suffers from hostility to building, so does our quality of life, particularly in urban areas.

For tight planning restrictions designed to protect the countryside have all too often resulted in dense development in our cities and towns and even, thanks to the much favoured policy of infilling, in villages. The DoE likes to boast that in 1988 53% of new housing was built on urban land. No figure is given for how much of this land was formerly derelict, and how much represents redevelopment of residential areas at higher densities, but it is quite possible that there is more of the latter than of the former.

This is an irony that those who live in a city experience every day. We will not build in the countryside, so we try to squeeze more and more into our towns, with the result that the quality of the urban environment deteriorates to protect the rural environment.

Value for money

Another consequence of our dislike of new housing development is that over the last twenty years the average homebuyer has had to pay more and more, for less and less. As the price of building land has rocketed, so developers have had to build ever more, ever smaller units, on every available acre. Professor Alan Evans of Reading University has produced research showing how, in the face of high land prices, the balance of new housing has swung towards smaller dwellings. Between 1969-1985 the percentage of new homes that were bungalows, the most spacious use of land, fell from 25% to less than half of that, while the proportion of flats and maisonettes trebled.

This trend continues. A survey by the Anglian Building Society shows that in 1968 the typical property on which it lent money had two reception rooms, and 70% had three bedrooms. By 1988 in contrast nearly 60% had only one reception room, and only 47% had three bedrooms. Meanwhile the average price had risen over thirteen times – twice the rate of RPI inflation.

Social impact on the countryside

Because housing restrictions have by and large been tightest in the countryside, the impact on rural house prices have been particularly great, especially as improvements in communications have made so many country areas commutable. According to a report from the Association of County Councils, Homes We Can Afford (1989), between 1974-85 house prices in Windermere, for instance, increased by 35% more than the national average. Another report on the subject, Affordable Rural Housing produced by ACRE, a charity specialising in the problems of rural housing, said that in 1985 property prices in the most rural district of each county were between 10-50% above the average.

The effect in all too many cases has been to drive out the traditional inhabitants, and to turn many villages over largely to commuters, the retired and holiday home owners. Homes we can afford pointed out that in Cornwall over 10% of the housing stock are second homes, in Dorset there are over 8,000 and in Devon nearly 10,000.

The consequences of these changes have been profound. Local schools close because no young people can afford to live in the village, local shops close because everyone goes by car to the new superstore ten miles away, and the remaining old villagers are left stranded.

One reason for this is that in many rural areas a disparity of interest is growing between the traditional inhabitants who not only live in the country but also earn their living there – whether from farming, or small industries and businesses – and those who live in the country but get their living from the towns; the commuters and the pensioners.

It is often the newcomers, in their quest for rural idyll, who are most resistant to change, and whose voices seem now in the ascendant. The Council for the Protection of Rural England in particular takes full advantage of the Government’s desire to appear ‘Green’. In the last few years it has stepped up its demands for ever tighter restrictions on all forms of development in the country, campaigning not only against new towns and other large developments but also criticising barn conversions and what it considers the misuse of agricultural dwellings. In the case of these last it has even produced a study citing individual homes to expose ‘weak controls’, to the irritation, it was reported, of some of their owners. Unless such fierce nimby pressures can somehow be reconciled with the need to keep villages and country towns economically viable, the countryside risks being ossified by preservation.

Where should we build?

The problems described above are all pressing, even if none of them is especially new. All, however, point to the need for a more relaxed attitude to building.

Economic imbalance between the regions is at the root of many of the issues associated with nimbyism and it has been on the national agenda for a long time, which brings us to the second question – where should development take place? Over the years various policies have tried to address this thorny issue.

‘Can’t they stay in the cities?’

One answer, and the one that this Government has pressed for hardest, is the regeneration of the inner cities. Revitalise and rebuild the inner cities, so runs the argument, and we can put all the new homes and new businesses in the docklands of London and Liverpool, in Manchester’s Trafford Park or into the derelict Don Valley outside Sheffield. It sounds easy and tempting, and politically it is made even more attractive for the present Government by the fact that none of those areas are traditionally Conservative. The flaw is that, despite the expenditure of billions of pounds of public and private money, it will work only to a limited extent.

The pump priming and subsidies are needed because left to themselves the inner cities would continue to decline. Their old industries have either closed or moved, their infrastructure is decayed and inadequate, they are not attractive places. The billions spent over the last decade have not been without effect, but it is hard to claim that they have turned the tide – even during a period of unprecedented boom.

Indeed during the 80’s people continued to leave the cities! and go, very many of them, to small and medium sized towns and predominantly rural counties – not exclusively in the South East but mostly south of the Severn-Wash line.

We have to acknowledge that, however unwelcome these trends may be to nimbies or government, they are not going to be stopped or reversed. Indeed every move to improve our roads and railways will further encourage the exodus from the cities. That is not only inevitable, it is also perfectly legitimate. As people get richer and more leisured, they are going to want more space and more greenery. In 1987 a poll for the Henley Centre for Forecasting asked where people would most like to live. The answers confirmed the British attraction to the country: 50% chose a village, 20% a small town, 16% a suburb of a large town, 3% the centre of a large town, and 11% didn’t know.

‘Can’t they go somewhere else?’

The other policy often suggested by nimbies is that new growth should be forcefully channelled to the North, or to Scotland, or to Wales.

These places, the argument runs, are where unemployment supposedly goes hand in hand with wide open spaces, and where the locals should be delighted to get any development that might come their way.

This is not only patronising, but also too easy to be true. In a competitive market economy, government can no longer get away with that sort of intervention and direction. Not that it even worked in the 60s and 70s – which is why, over recent years, the scope and extent of regional policy has been greatly reduced. Too much experience showed showed that when tried to force businesses and people to places where they would not otherwise have gone, it often aborted the very economic growth it sought to promote.

Tell a small business to expand elsewhere, and it may well decide not to expand at all. Tell a big company, especially an inward investor, to go somewhere it thinks inappropriate, then with 1992 in mind it may well head for some more welcoming part of Europe, taking its exports, expertise, and tax payments with it. The DTI’s statement to the public enquiry on Foxley Wood – itself a unique intervention – pointed out that its ‘experience is that the majority of enquiries from foreign companies seeking a South East location have, as their alternative choice of location, one on mainland Europe.

Furthermore when firms do want to go North, or to Scotland or Wales, they will find there very much the same environmental pressures as they find in the South. In the North too, people are leaving the cities for the richer, pleasanter small towns and villages.

And those places are now subject to just the same environmental pressures as their Southern counterparts. Nor does the Government relax the green belt any more easily in the North than it does in the South. In fact the most rapid expansion in green belts since 1979 has taken place not as is widely thought in the South East, but in the North.

‘Keep housing for the locals’

The idea that local authorities should be given powers not only to restrict the building of new houses but also to dictate who shall be allowed to occupy them is new but gaining ground rapidly. Its supporters claim that it is the only way of preserving the social mix and economic balance of the countryside. By ensuring that new homes are available only to ‘local’ people, it is hoped that their price can be kept down. Bryan Gould MP recently floated the idea of restricting second homes (which is a variant on this theme) and the Government itself has indicated that it would support restricted housebuilding for local needs, provided that it was in addition to normal DoE approved county quotas. The CPRE has also very recently produced a paper advocating the creation of a special class of housing. The idea should be treated with circumspection.

Firstly, what does ‘local’ mean? The Government says that it means existing residents, those who provide an important service, those with long standing links to a place, and those with an offer of a job. How should such a system be administered by local authorities? What of the loopholes, evasions, red tape of it all? It would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Secondly, consider the morality. Add the class ‘those who can afford it to the list of ‘local’ criteria, and you have what sounds like the immigration policies of the Channel Islands. Impose such a system, and those who are not particularly wealthy or are unfortunate enough to have been born in cities or large towns – i.e. the great majority of the population – could be barred from moving to the country. Is that what we want? Should local councillors be given legal power over who is and who is not fit to be their neighbours? If being a British citizen means anything, it surely means being entitled to move about Britain freely. The constitutional implications of such local immigration controls would be great, and outrageous too, since they would operate against the interest of the majority. That the debate on this subject has developed as far as it has, without this aspect of the question being aired, is remarkable.

Lastly, special housing quotas bring the whole system into disrepute. Planners and the Government justify their housing quotas on the grounds that enough new homes are provided to meet the ‘need’ for them. Those who find themselves priced out of the market as a result strongly suspect the claim to be hollow. The ‘local needs’ policy seems to confirm their doubts. If existing housing quotas are sufficient, why the extras and exceptions? By acknowledging that more houses are needed than the system has allocated, the authorities accept that the quotas are insufficient. In that case (according to their own logic), the planners should allow more houses in the normal ration.

How much should we build?

Local restrictions look ill thought out and dangerous. That is not so with the Government’s efforts to boost the inner cities and the regions, which in themselves are worth while. But neither of these will provide the answer that so many nimbies are seeking, nor will they solve the bottlenecks in the housing market. That of course is why nimbyism flourishes. Nimbies want to duck what they see as an impossible question. Better abandon growth than wreck our environment, is the logical conclusion of their argument. The trouble is that very few nimbies are willing to take the argument to its logical conclusion. They are concerned about their own back yards; but on the national level nimbies tend to be precisely the sort of people who most appreciate the benefits of growth and expect the Government to deliver them.

There is always a feeling that nimbyism is free, and so at a preliminary, local level it often is. The costs arise when it repeats itself, over all the more dynamic areas of the country.

If this country is going to succeed in creating a stable non-inflationary economy for the 1990’s, and we have to do that if we are going to achieve both higher living standards and a better quality of life, then economic growth will continue to be needed. And you cannot have economic development without physical development.
To think that we can force the economy of the twenty-first century into the land use patterns of the mid-twentieth is to live in cloud-cuckoo land. The differences in transport, business and housing are too great. A flexible, competitive economy requires good infrastructure, affordable housing and reasonably priced buildings where the market wants them. A decent quality of life requires pleasant and affordable housing for prosperous and poor, in the places where industry and commerce wants to offer them jobs. And that nowadays means those successful parts of the country where nimbyism is strongest – the South East, the smaller towns and the villages.

The question remains, therefore, how do we reconcile the two?

Making development acceptable

To defuse the opposition we need to return to the root of the problem and to consider why development is so often horrendously unpopular. That is what, in a sense, the Prince of Wales has done, and it has proved a very useful exercise. For he has pointed out that development is feared not just because it brings more people into hitherto peaceful places. He has pointed out that much modern development is loathed because, for so long now, it has been ugly, cramped, shoddy, and aggressively out of character with its surroundings.

He is right. In Britain we have got ourselves into a vicious circle whereby modern development is of such poor quality that it reinforces the prejudice against itself. It is a vicious circle urgently in need of breaking. The key lies in making development once again acceptable. Not so long ago, after all, good housing was appreciated for enhancing the environment.

One principal reason, however, why we cannot build good housing at present is that the tight planning restrictions on which we rely to protect our environment have, as already discussed, driven the price of building land to such heights that not only are flats, houses and gardens all now getting smaller, but too little money is left over for decent design, materials and finishes. We could undoubtedly do better, we could again build decently and even spaciously, but only if the proportion of the cost of an average new home which is gobbled up by land prices, is greatly reduced from the figure (in the South East) of over 40% which it reached at the height of the recent boom. Twenty years ago, before tight planning restrictions began to bite, it was under half this.

At the moment developers can treat design as secondary, because the planning system deals only in technical details and numbers. Quality and aesthetics are officially not considered relevant. The Government says that local councillors and their officials are not the people to judge such matters. That may well be so, but the result is that nobody does. What happens instead, too often goes like this.

The local authority zones as little land as possible for housing. Once it is so designated, the value of each acre increases by a hundredfold or even more. Inevitably, architects and developers then have to cram as much as possible onto the tight ration of land the planners make available. These are both the politics and the economics of the matter; and with housing provision so severely regulated, the public has had to take what it has been given. In the end the only people to benefit are the farmers, for whom the process has become a sort of English sweepstake.

The problem of course is who is to say what constitutes good design? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can the planning system cope with the concept? Traditional and vernacular design is demanded by some authorities, the results are sometimes better but rarely very much so, because the planners do not take account of the money and space needed for good design. Too often their guidance merely adds bastardised finishing touches to developments that are basically still shoddy and cramped.

No one can lay down from on high the rules of good design. But there should be some guidelines observed that would greatly increase its chances.

The green belt

The Green Belt has become the totem of conservationism; if a minister wants to look Green he trumpets his commitment to it. The Green Belts, however, have changed over the years, losing some of their original emphasis on providing a country lung for Londoners, and other city dwellers, to relax in. Like so many other parts of our planning system, they have come more to serve the interests of the local inhabitants. Most Green Belt land remains private and not very accessible to the public. Leisure development in it is as fiercely resisted as any other form of building.

Preserving the Green Belt has led not only to pressure for denser development in the cities themselves, but also transferred much suburbanisation to the towns that lie just beyond it. Nor has this shifting around of pressure for development served the Green Belt very well, merely leading to more pressure for roads and railways to get across it from the dormitory towns to the city proper. Indeed so spoilt is some of the Green Belt, that its worst bits are now called the Brown Belt. In particular, with the completion of the M25 around London considerable areas of ‘brown belt’ are now encircled by new motorway. There is a good case for accommodating a lot of the pressure for new housing and development on the grubbier parts of the Green Belts, rather than cramming yet more into the cities themselves or the towns further out.

It is important not to confuse preservation of the Green Belt with the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks. The aim of the Green Belts was not so much to be beautiful as to prevent cities expanding, and that they have done. But a successful city has a natural tendency to expand, and curbing it successfully is bound to cause problems elsewhere. That is why their inviolability should now be re-examined.


This pamphlet began with series of fundamental questions. Do we really need new development? And if so, how much do we need, and how and where can it be made acceptable? The answer to the first question must surely be yes. The overwhelming majority of people in this country want to be part of a successful modern economy; their livelihoods and futures depend on it. Over the last decade it has become ever clearer that only a liberal market economy can deliver that success, and as a result we have seen a worldwide trend towards liberalisation. In Europe we are developing a single market, in Britain the last ten years have seen the removal of most restrictions on the use of labour and capital. Inevitably that has led to enormous pressure for changes in the use of land – the third fundamental constituent of economic activity. But in this area alone liberalisation has, with popular support, been resisted. Indeed the reverse has happened.

Restrictions have been tightened in those areas where the pressure for change has been greatest. The result has been distortion – distortion in the price and size of houses, distortion in the mobility of labour, distortion in the provision of transport. Those distortions have unpleasant side effects, fuelling inflation, increasing homelessness and debt, diverting resources from other areas in need of investment, worsening congestion and travel.

So we need to change our attitude to building. We cannot squeeze the economy of the 21st century into the land use patterns of the mid 20th. We have to find a way to make new development acceptable, and to show people how the gains outweigh the losses.

The Conservative Party cannot dodge the issue for ever. In the 1970’s Labour painted itself into an impossible political corner by promising small but important groups amongst its supporters, such as the miners, steel workers and ship builders in the nationalised industries, that the state would continue to protect them against the forces of economic change. This destroyed Labour’s credibility for a decade. The Conservatives must not make a similar mistake by promising their vociferous nimby supporters in the home counties that change can be kept at bay for ever, without it in any way hurting the economy and ultimately their own standard of living.

Hence the other questions, how can this be done? Here we must concentrate on two areas, improving the quality and design of new building and compensating those affected by it. The price of land is the key to both these. The present system, by so tightly rationing land for development, drives its price up, leaving little money over for quality and compensation. We need a system which puts much more of the value of a development into better building and gives a share of the profits to local people. Only then will nimbyism fade.

With the price of houses falling at the moment, the need for action may seem less pressing. But house prices are falling only because the cost of the money needed to buy them has doubled since 1988, accounting for much of our high inflation rate. The underlying pressure for more housing remains.

As matters stand, therefore, we are set for another damaging boom in house prices when interest rates eventually drop and the economy speeds up. If we have to keep the cost of money high in order to avoid the inflationary risks of a housing boom, that will further damage our pockets and our economic competitiveness.

The planning system was set up to impose a ‘rational’ order of priorities on development. That never happened, and now its main purpose is all too often nimby – the very opposite of what its inventors intended. Even to suggest radical change is now thought to be political madness, but a thorough overhaul is nonetheless needed urgently.

Perhaps joining the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary system may finally prove the catalyst. If we are to enter a system designed to force our inflation rate down to that of Germany, then we soon will no longer be able to afford the self indulgence of nimbyism.

This is an abridged extract, to read the full report click here.

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Richard Ehrman is a former a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Employment and a property developer