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20 May 2023

Are politicians finally about to build on the green belt? 

The battle against nimbyism is on – and the Tories should be worried.

By Jonn Elledge

In 2019, the Tory party retained its historically safe seat of Chipping Barnet in north London with a majority of just 1,212. This was actually a substantial improvement on the 353 votes it held it by two years earlier. Across the south-east, once true blue seats are trending redder, as housing costs price young couples out of inner London and consign a growing number of 20 somethings to returning to their childhood bedrooms.

I mention all this just to highlight quite what an interesting choice Chipping Barnet’s MP, Theresa Villiers, has made in deciding to become the nimby-in-chief. In an interview with Martina Lees of the Sunday Times last weekend, Villiers – who, perhaps rationally, took some persuading to talk to a housing correspondent in the first place – warned of the terrifying and very real danger that places like her constituency could lose their green spaces and “become indistinguishable from central London”.

Those green spaces apparently include the car park at Cockfosters tube station, in the neighbouring constituency of Enfield Southgate. A plan to build flats there is the sort of scheme that many opponents of over-development claim, in the abstract, they would support: a brownfield site, with impeccable transport links, whose development would literally generate money to subsidise London’s tube network. Villiers, though, is far more principled than the average nimby and opposes development there too, warning that it will turn London into East Berlin. (The only scheme she is known to have favoured is the redevelopment of the Dollis Valley council estate in her constituency, at a net loss of 113 homes for people on lower incomes. Nobody, to be fair, could compare that to East Berlin.)

Still, we may assume it just a coincidence that, as Villiers admits in the same interview, the crisis has affected no one in her family and she cannot think of a single housing-related horror story by which she felt touched. And I’m sure the fact that a quarter of her constituents are private renters, almost five percentage points more than in England and Wales as a whole, won’t come back to bite her at the ballot box.

[See also: However the housing crisis ends, we will all lose]

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Villiers is an extreme case – many politicians oppose housing development, because many voters do, but few make it their entire identity, or quite so easily admit to knowing nobody on the sharp end. But her story does illustrate a problem for the Conservatives. The decade-long failure to provide housing security is hardly the only reason younger voters have turned against the Tories. Brexit is a factor too; so are the higher marginal tax rates created by the tuition fee system; so, oddly enough, is the apparently irresistible urge to tell young people that they’re rubbish and should shut up. But housing is a big one, if only because people with no capital inevitably end up having less faith in capitalism.

Both Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher understood this, and attempted to widen home ownership. So, one suspects, does Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, who gave an interview to the Sun on Wednesday in which he promised young people, should any be reading, that “I will never screw you over to appease nimby MPs”. Villiers, it seems, does not.

Gove’s promise, alas, does not entirely ring true. It’s not just that he declines to criticise his “friend” Theresa, nor that he leaves his party almost infinite wiggle room (“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sticking up for your local community, provided you take the approach that development of the right kind, which is high quality, is welcomed”). The bigger problem is that his government has already caved to pressure from its nimby tendency by scrapping councils’ mandatory building targets. Gove won’t screw you over to appease nimbys, he says: how can he, after all, when they’ve already been appeased?

Gove uses the same interview to argue that Keir Starmer’s “interest in housing is as cosmetic as Holly and Phil’s on air relationship. It’s totally skin deep”, which is certainly one way of putting it. This was in retaliation to the Labour leader talking about housing this week, too, promising the British Chamber of Commerce that he would be on the side of “builders not blockers”, and the Times that he would allow more homes on the green belt. The detail is inevitably more nuanced – the Labour leader says he would give councils and residents more powers to reclassify green belt, which given communities’ own lack of enthusiasm for housing growth is far from a magic bullet. He too has left himself plenty of wiggle room.

But tone is not nothing in politics, and Starmer’s willingness to slay this sacred cow may count as progress in itself. The green belt is hugely popular, and politicians willing to talk about the fact that parts of it are far from green or discuss how it has choked off growth (Richard Bacon, Siobhain McDonagh) have generally been restricted to the backbenches. Even if his stance lacks radicalism, Starmer is the first major party leader I can remember willing to risk unpopularity among nimbys by admitting it needs to change. Oh, and he wants more on-shore windfarms, too.

Meanwhile, the Tories are still in hock to Villiers and her tribe, betraying the future in the hope of squeezing a few more votes from the already well-housed. For years, voters have faced a choice between nimbys wearing different coloured rosettes. It’s just possible that’s finally about to change.

[See also: Housing crisis: A generation locked out]

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