11 May 2021

Stop listening to NIMBYs – it’s time for all out war


Boris Johnson has promised a “radical shakeup” of the planning system – the “biggest shake-up in 70 years” no less – in order to fix the housing crisis.

Call me a cynic, but I have heard this too many times to believe a word of it. We have been here before. Announcing a “radical shakeup” of the planning system is turning into a recurring ritual of British politics. It always starts with all the right noises, and it always ends in a capitulation to NIMBY interests.

I am old enough to remember getting all excited about Nick Boles’s plan for a “radical shakeup” of the planning system a decade ago, when he was Planning Minister. I was aware that Boles was not the first to try this, and that previous attempts at “radical shake-ups” had gone nowhere, most notably in the wake of the 2004 Barker Review of Housing Supply. But I was still naïve enough to think that maybe this time would be different.

Alas, it was not. A formidable machinery of NIMBY opposition sprang into action, accusing Boles of plotting to “concrete over the countryside”, and “riding roughshod over the wishes of local communities”. These are cheap rhetorical tricks. But they always work. Boles’s own colleagues soon turned on him, and a year or so later, his plans were all but dead in the water.

Even in Theresa May’s days, there was a Housing White Paper which started with a perfectly sensible diagnosis of the problem, and which also advocated a “radical shakeup”. Nothing much ever came out of it.

The last “radical shakeup” was announced in another housing White Paper last summer. A few months later, the Times reported that the government was already backing down again:

Boris Johnson has suggested to Tory MPs that London could be given a partial exemption from new planning laws as he seeks to placate opponents.

The prime minister is understood to have said that the city could be offered a “carve-out” from some measures after warnings that the reforms risked ‘destroying suburbia’”.

The past six years or so have been a strange period, marked by a series of Black Swan Events: Corbyn, Brexit, Covid. It is almost reassuring that even in such strange times, there is one dependable iron law of British politics: in Britain, the NIMBYs always win.

Despite all the talk of “radical shake-ups”, Britain still isn’t building. As mentioned previously on CapX, Britain is still building fewer new homes per 100,000 people than comparable countries. This is despite the fact that Britain has much greater potential for catch-up growth, due to the high levels of pent-up demand caused by decades of curtailed development. Britain has much lower levels of housing supply than comparable countries when measured by the number of housing units per 100,000 people, and what little housing we have is also smaller, older, and skewed towards the wrong places.

This failure to build enough houses is the single biggest policy failure holding Britain back. Not only does it lead to some of the highest housing costs in the world, whether measured in absolute terms or relative to average incomes, whether we look at house prices or at rents. It also depresses productivity and growth: John Myers estimates that with a sensible housing policy, Britain could quite easily be a quarter richer than it actually is (in which case Britain would overtake Germany in per capita terms). It leads to a higher tax burden by making higher Housing Benefit payments necessary. And it leads to higher consumer prices across the board, because the cost of property becomes part of the cost of just about everything.

The problem with all these attempts at “radical shake-ups” is that politicians keep hoping they could somehow reform the system without waking up the most powerful electoral force in Britain: NIMBYism. This is not how it works. If you want to solve Britain’s housing crisis, you have to be prepared to take on the NIMBYs, in the way Margaret Thatcher took on leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Thatcher did not waffle about the need to “listen” to the “legitimate concerns” of Arthur Scargill et al. She described them as “the enemy within”. And that was exactly the right approach. Because sometimes, things really are black and white.

NIMBYism is a nasty business. NIMBYism is when well-housed, well-off people, who were lucky enough to get on the property ladder in time, use their political muscle and rhetorical skill to deny the same opportunities to other people. The solution is not to “listen” to them, it is not to try to “bring them on board”, or to search for a “consensus”. It is to declare an all-out war on them.

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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