27 May 2021

Stale attacks on ‘Nimbys’ add nothing to the planning debate

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I’ve recently seen a plethora of articles supporting drastic changes in planning law, accompanied by the silly slur that all who oppose must be the dreaded ‘nimbys’, or live in fear of them. This can only mean one thing: the latest round in the battle to change planning law – potentially giving developers even more power – is underway.  Those in favour of scrapping the current system are making their case. The trouble is, like the mutant algorithm failure of last year, it’s not a convincing one.

First, the assumption behind the pitch – that we are not building houses – is questionable.  For sure, the UK has historically struggled. However, last year we built 250,000 properties, the best stats for over 30 years. If Boris’ target figure – which, by the way, is completely arbitrary – had been 250,000 rather than 300,000 a year, we would already be achieving our target. The Conservative manifesto also pledged a million homes by the end of this parliament in 2024, a pledge we appear to be on track to meet. The claim that we must change the system to start to build the houses we are not building is false.

Indeed, so generous has the planning system been that the big developers are sitting on one million unused planning permissions. Is the fault therefore with the planning system or with big developers, who ‘landbank’ permissions to restrict supply, inflate their land values and hence, share price?  Rather than simply make it easy for developers to build where they want, when they want, could we perhaps reform the system to ensure developers build where they have already got permission?

Second, parcelling objectors as “nimbys” and portraying them as if they were some kind of planning zombie army is not only pathetically ignorant, but it is also bad politics. When one throws insults rather than argue the facts, it shows the case is already lost.  Personally, I think “Nimbys” are local patriots; people who care about their environment, their communities and the people around them. Many so-called ‘Nimbys’ have taken part, and even led, the development of local plans that recognise the need for housing, but distinguish between the modest and sensitive developments that their communities need, as opposed to the environmentally destructive and unsustainable, mass-produced, large-scale, low density, car dependent, greenfield housing estates that despoil the areas they are built on.

Once upon a time, Conservatives referred to ‘Nimbys’ by their other name: ‘Conservative voters’. I’d suggest we should start to do so again.

Third, implicit in plans as currently presented is the removal of a significant layer of local democracy and local input from the planning process. Stripping away the democratic layer from the planning system matters to those of us who live in the communities we represent and it matters to our residents.  It matters also to the thousands of Conservative councillors across England, from parish and town, to borough, city and county. The Westminster bubble may not care about them, but they should. These plans threaten to give Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens throughout England a rallying cry: Save local democracy from the Tories and their developer chums.

Fourth, Tory MPs are sympathetic to Secretary of State Robert Jenrick, but I feel Robert and his minsters have not made the case as to why we need to scrap the current system, rather than intelligently and sensitively reform it.  The system is, like any, imperfect, but we know its flaws and we would be more likely to achieve the Government’s aims through reforming it.  To seek revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, change – which is what currently appears to be suggested – is both unconservative and more likely to result in failed policy, bad outcomes and angry voters.  It would be a shame if the Government immediately started to unpick its remarkable electoral coalition.

A developer-led process, minus the ability to object, will be an electoral disaster, and deservedly so.

Those of us concerned about planning are overwhelmingly people who care about our environment, our people and our communities: that’s what Conservatives should be standing for. In a place like the Isle of Wight, which I have the privilege to represent in Parliament, that means building houses which are genuinely affordable, in sensitive numbers, in a local style, in existing communities, for Islanders and with their support.

On principle, I and others are arguing for a planning agenda that has three clear objectives. I recommend them to ministers.

First, development must be community-led. It should increase, not undermine, local democracy. We should strengthen and simplify Local Plan processes to ensure development is led by communities.  Nationally set housing targets should be advisory, not mandatory. We should continue to allow and support Exceptional Circumstances. The system needs to be flexible to cope with differing approaches and needs.

Next, planning and development must be Levelling Up-led.  Housing should sit within integrated, long-term development plans for regeneration to prioritise the Levelling Up agenda. Investment must go to Red Wall areas. The Housing and Planning Bill is a unique chance to regenerate northern and Midland cities and communities which have seen absolute population declines in the past 50 years.  Our model must learn from the successes of the London Docklands Corporation as well as European states such as Holland (land reclamation) and Germany (long-term levelling up post reunification). Infrastructure investment must follow where the homes are being built. If that infrastructure goes South so, metaphorically speaking, will Government support: promised investment to the Red Wall will fail to materialise whilst the South and the shires will be even more rammed. If that’s not the definition of policy failure, I don’t know what is.

Third, planning must be environment-led. To meet mandated 2050 carbon targets, to say nothing of the upcoming Environment Bill, we have no choice but to prioritise low carbon construction & living. All available data shows this is best achievable through city living and the use of recycled land, i.e. brownfield sites. Effectively, we need a cultural shift in land use; we need a recycling culture in housing and land use, not a greenfield development culture, which is the environmental equivalent of slash and burn.

That means that prioritising brownfield sites needs to be legally mandated and accompanied by significant support for brownfield clean-up. We must be willing to do difficult things, such as change taxation regimes on greenfield vs brownfield land to change the economic dynamics and incentivise brownfield development. That means, for example, taxing greenfield sites and using that money for even more brownfield clean-up. In addition, Councils should be given more permission to compulsorily purchase long-term, unused property. Planning permission in future must be given on a ‘use it or lose’ it basis.

The above: community focused, committed to levelling-up, long-term and environmentally sustainable, is what Building Back Better should be about.

Planning is not a ‘sexy’ issue in Westminster, but millions of people throughout England care deeply about it because they care about the environment in which they live, they care about their communities, and yes, they care about where their children will live.

The opening salvos in the planning debate have been predictably unimaginative. Let’s hope we can move beyond the stale attacks on ‘Nimbys’ and the bogus claims about houses not being built, and get to a point where the real conversation can begin.

At the heart of that is the following: do we want a developer-led system or a community-led system? Do we want long-term planning to accompany housing-building and levelling up? Do we want to retain or strip away local accountability and democracy? How can house-building accompany attempts to re-orientate our economy, or should we just keep ploughing more development in the south-east and south-west? Has Covid changed the long-term housing plans of Britons? What does rejuvenation of our northern towns and cities mean in reality?

These are significant issues. Let’s have a debate which matches it.

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Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight

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