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3 October 2023

Why you should be nice to Nimbys

Blind hatred never built a house.

By Finn McRedmond

The latest addition to Las Vegas’s schizophrenic skyline is a 366-foot tall and 516-foot wide orb, wrapped in LED screens, looming over the strip like an extra-terrestrial beach ball. Inside, a 360-degree immersive concert venue, currently home to a U2 residency. The structure is so large it could comfortably house the Statue of Liberty, and parliament’s Elizabeth Tower too. It’s the venue of the future; a perfect addition to Vegas’s quest to blur the boundaries of entertainment, architecture and techno-utopia.

Meanwhile back in Stratford, London, it is a very different world. Plans for a repeat version of the Sphere – first introduced in 2018 – have been caught up in the throes of planning disputes. Local resistance to the development of the concert hall has been vocal: the external screens will worsen light pollution; the area already has plenty of entertainment venues; what is suitable for Las Vegas may not be suitable for east London; wherever you build that thing, they say, keep it away from me.

The Yimby/Nimby capture of Britain’s political discourse is complete. And the battle lines are stark. The Yes in My Back Yard coalition chastises the Nimby for their lack of ambition, their pursuit of self-interest at the altar of the greater good, their purse-lipped Tory avarice. The Nimby is anxious about their property value, the character of their community, perhaps a nebulous desire to safeguard “nature”. Nimbyism – writ large – might get plenty wrong. But there is a crisis in the soul of the Yimby movement.

To see the world through the eyes of a Yimby must be a spiritually soothing process. In their mind exists a simple binary: those who are selflessly motivated by the national interest, the quest for justice, untouched by bias or prejudice; and the Nimby, a product of malign – or worse, stupid – inputs, clouded by classism and perhaps even racism. Within such a neat ethical framework there are two paths: the noble crusade of pro-development progress (build the orb!) or the acceptance of Britain’s inexorable decline, replete with ever-entrenched inequality and dwindling GDP. This is a comforting taxonomy for a six-year-old, but for an intellectual movement attempting to resolve a housing emergency it is rather limiting.

For a start, organising the world into goodies and baddies is juvenile. Refusing to acknowledge that a Yimby can also be motivated by self-interest is an active process of reality denial, and invoking moral dimensions in questions of planning reform is evidently self-defeating.

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But the Yimby is technically right. Economists are at pains to point out that poor housing supply is a drag on economies. More than that, the Yimby will point to evidence that fixing the housing shortage will not just aid an asset-starved generation of renters but might even boost fertility, lessen divorce rates and ameliorate the climate crisis. Development – housing specifically – is presented as the master key through which every social ailment can be unlocked, understood and resolved. For now, there is no political question that cannot be laundered through this dichotomy.

[See also: Will anyone dare defy the Nimby Party?]

If that is true – that this is not just the most urgent crisis we face but also resolving it will put us on the path back to living in a fair, well-adjusted country – then it is a shame that the cult of the online Yimby is so poor at politics. It’s cruel; seeking to chastise rather than build consensus; uninterested in convincing their opponents; refusing to acknowledge that sometimes the Nimby might have a reasonable case; and busy crafting personal attacks. The problem is simple: the Yimby is so convinced that they have correctly diagnosed the sickness in Britain that they have put little effort into formulating a sellable cure.

“You Don’t Have to Spare Nimbys’ Feelings”, reads a recent headline in Slate, capturing exactly the above disposition. It’s true that in a narrow sense you don’t have to preserve anyone’s feelings. But it’s bizarre advice in a practical sense, since insulting your adversary has not historically been a way to endear them to your cause. And if it is true what the Yimby says – that the anti-building coalition wields all the power in this country – then any failure to get them onside would be an act of grave self-sabotage. So perhaps actually, yes, the Yimby does have to spare some feelings.

Consensus building may not be a sexy mode of political organising. But the total eschewal of Realpolitik leaves the motives of the YIMBY up for question. First posited by writer and housing activist Freddie de Boer: Is the term a mere status signifier, a means to gain cultural kudos within a particular political milieu? Or does it indicate an actual bid to resolve Britain’s building stagnation?

This is a sympathy crisis. It seems easier to cast the local residents’ associations of Stratford and Newham, for example, as anti-progress bores rather than accepting the idea there might be legitimate social objections to building a giant LED sphere in a residential part of London’s East End. Yimbyism can only succeed as a philosophy if it does not adhere to the simple principle that all building is good in all places at all times.

If Yimbyism is going to win – and it needs to – then the first thing the movement needs to do is adopt empathy for its hated rivals. That it receives none back is irrelevant.

[See also: The deadly cost of Nimbyism]

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