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4 May 2023

Will anyone dare defy the Nimby Party?

As long as the main parties believe there are votes in opposing development, the UK won’t get the houses it needs.

By David Gauke

At the time of publication of this article, the polls remain open in the local elections and not a single vote has been counted. But I can confidently make a prediction as to who has won a crushing victory in much of the country and, in particular, the Home Counties. The Nimby Party will triumph.

One can be confident that this is the case because the only candidates with a chance of winning many council seats represent the Nimby Party, albeit some are badged as Conservatives and others identify as Liberal Democrats. These candidates fill their leaflets with proclamations of their commitment to oppose any development in the locality and accusations that their opponents want to concrete over the green belt. Rather than an election between competing parties, it is more akin to a primary election as candidates compete to be the one true representative of the Nimby Party.

In fairness, the candidates will have a reasonable idea of what their electorates think. If opposing development was a vote loser, our local political parties would not do it. But it is a vote winner, and the voters get what they want. Democracy in action.

This does cause some unease, however. There are plenty of Lib Dems who think that embracing nimbyism is not very liberal. Some Conservative MPs are uncomfortable; centre-right think tanks are generally horrified by where we have got to (Robert Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies has tirelessly campaigned for planning reform). Within government, the Prime Minister’s political secretary, James Forsyth, wrote frequently when a journalist that the Conservatives would face political extinction if home ownership rates continued to fall because of a lack of housebuilding.

Over the last 13 years there have been many attempts to liberalise planning but the government is now in unambiguous retreat. It halted a backbench rebellion by scrapping compulsory housing targets and, inevitably, local authorities have dropped their plans. Housebuilding has slowed and looks set to slow further.

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Tory voters dislike new housing and Conservative MPs in the Home Counties fear that new homes will be filled with incomers from London who are unlikely to give up their non-Tory voting habits the moment they cross the M25.

At the same time as the Conservatives have become more sensitive to the political opposition to new housing developments, they have become more persuaded that building more homes is not necessarily the answer to low rates of home ownership. High house prices, it is argued, are a consequence of loose monetary policy and the consequent rise in asset prices. Those with savings are investing in housing. Build more homes and these will often be acquired by buy-to-let investors rather than first-time buyers.

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If that is correct, the way to achieve more home ownership is to tilt the housing market towards homeowners rather than landlords. This can consist of carrots (there is talk of reviving Help to Buy) or sticks (for example, making the tax treatment of buy-to-let investors less favourable or bringing in tough energy efficiency requirements on landlords).

This approach is often immediately dismissed but Help to Buy has helped people get on the housing ladder (and an element of it has encouraged more housebuilding for first-time buyers). The Prime Minister is correct to claim that house purchases by first-time buyers are the highest in 20 years. The problem is that tilting the housing market in one direction may address one problem but it creates a problem elsewhere, as we now see a very competitive and inflationary rental market.

There is a further economic cost to low levels of housebuilding in places where the demand is greatest. Increasing the population in high productivity areas (which are also the areas where housing demand is greatest) will increase our national productivity.

Last week I complained that none of our political parties were prepared to advocate the policies needed to deliver strong economic growth, such as planning reform and developing the Oxford to Cambridge arc. I may have been unfair on Labour. Since then, the party has emphasised its commitment to housebuilding, restoring compulsory targets and even briefed its enthusiasm for the Oxford to Cambridge arc.

This is to be cautiously welcomed. Cautious, because indicating enthusiasm does not necessarily lead to implementation. Labour has less to lose politically from supporting more housebuilding but there are plenty of marginal seats in south-east England where this policy might be used against the party. Keir Starmer does not have a proven track record of resisting political backlashes. But it would be churlish not to acknowledge moves in the right direction.

It is also worth thinking about the implications for the other parties. In the event of a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats will obviously back Labour but would they back the return of compulsory housebuilding targets? Probably not, fearing that this could be another tuition fees fiasco. This could prove to be an area of Labour–Liberal Democrat tension.

As for the Tories, this will be a wedge issue to retain their natural supporters at the next general election and, potentially, a cause to rally behind in opposition. On the evidence of the local election campaign, it would be a temptation too hard to resist. But it would mean positioning themselves on the wrong side of an economic argument and favouring older voters over younger ones. At some point, the Tories will have to get out of that habit.

[See also: From nimbyism to the trans right debate, today’s politics is all about taking back control]

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