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30 July 2021

My brush with the new nimbyism

As planning reforms loom and Tory MPs in the Blue Wall fear the impact of local development, I fight the urge to shout “not on my rooftop”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“DOMINO-woo-hoo!” yells a scaffolder from the rooftop of my block. Another across the building duly responds with the yodel from the pizza delivery ad. Then they all start reminiscing about the Pokémon theme tune (“To train them is my caaauuse!”).

After a lengthy self-isolation period, they are my new friends – there every morning when I wake up, chatting over their coffees outside my window, singing with as much heart as they did the England football anthems a few weeks ago, cheerily getting drenched in the rain from great slippery heights.

They apologise for the noisy drilling, though it is of course worse for them. Most of my life at home is punctuated with the buzz of metal on metal. I pitch an idea in a remote editorial meeting – drilling. I do a radio interview – drilling. I try to sleep off an inevitable recent bout of Covid-19 – drilling, drilling, drilling. It is like the entire levelling up agenda is happening a storey above.

The construction my neighbours and I have been anticipating on our block for months has finally begun. Our housing association is having 142 new homes built on top, underneath and in every little disused crevice and garage on our estate.

Although I had the right, I never objected to the development – I know the acute housing shortage in my borough, and the mix of wheelchair access and family-sized apartments seemed necessary to me.

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Yet the lure of nimbyism is strong. Who wants their access to light diminished and water pressure reduced? Who wants their surroundings to be a building site for two years minimum? Who feels a little cheated when the only time the housing association bothers to make your flat “gas safe” is when it’s planning to rent out some shiny new apartments?

[see also: A third of adults in Britain live in unsafe and insecure housing]

Exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies* shows a majority of Britons (57 per cent) support the construction of additional houses by the UK government, and just 14 per cent oppose it. Yet when asked if they’d support construction in their local area, the picture changes: the proportion of support drops to 50 per cent, and 27 per cent oppose.

Of those who are opposed to the construction of additional houses in their area, 78 per cent say this is because there are already enough houses there, 52 per cent say that it would cause traffic congestion, 29 per cent that it would cause noise and light pollution, 28 per cent that it would ruin the look of their area, 9 per cent that house prices might go up, 7 per cent that prices might go down, and 7 per cent that building works would be inconvenient. (22 per cent say they have another reason).

I live in a ground-floor maisonette with one property above, and two more storeys are going up on top of us. This kind of upwards extension could soon be a common feature on low-rise blocks of flats – the government loosened planning rules last August to make it easier to extend two storeys up.

It was a controversial change. Kay Andrews, a Labour peer and former chair of English Heritage, has been opposing it in the Lords. She herself is one of 1.8 million leaseholders affected by the policy, and who believe it is a mechanism for freeholders to make more cash. She lives in a block of flats in London where the owner of her building wants to take advantage of the new freedom to build upwards.

“We have not been consulted; we do not want it; it is unpredictable and problematic in terms of buildability, safety and loss of amenity,” she told the Lords last September.

“We may well be faced with a choice between living in a building site – ceilings coming down and holes in the walls – or evacuating, and there is no compensation for the loss of peaceful enjoyment.

“There will be resort to law, but only for people who can afford it. The government knew from the start that this was an unpopular policy… and many of the issues raised were completely ignored.”

There can indeed be major downsides for the people living below.

Residents of a block called Apex Court in Ealing, west London, have experienced extensive flooding, cracks in the wall, and pieces of cladding falling off since having five flats added to the top of their building.

One leaseholder there called Jane told a July episode of BBC Radio 4’s File On Four called “Leaseholder Losses” that she lies awake with her “stomach in knots” thinking, “I cannot afford the enormous sums of money it’s going to take to fix this building.”

Residents of the Grange Court block in north Bristol have said this week (28 July) that they are “terrified” of two extra storeys being built on their block, after a developer appealed an earlier planning application, which was originally refused by city councillors who called it “unusually cruel”.

[see also: New homes alone won’t solve the housing crisis]

At mine, two of my upstairs neighbours’ flats have flooded for the first time since building works on the roof began, and there are concerns even from the developer itself about what the extra storeys will mean for the existing Sixties flats, which already have problems with damp, old pipes, black mould and wall cracks.

Yet as I watch slabs of concrete being lifted to the roof by a giant crane, parked in what used to be communal gardens hosting timber planters and apple trees, I am aware of sliding into the mindset of a nimby: “not in my backyard” – or, more accurately, “not on my rooftop”.

A movement on the left known as “yimbys” (“yes in my backyard”) is concerned about the nimbyism they believe characterises mainstream politics. Many of the ousted Tory councillors in the south and other traditional Conservative areas during May’s local elections thought development projects were part of why they lost – for example, that it was a factor in their loss of overall control in Tunbridge Wells.

Lib Dems and the Greens are capitalising on this sentiment; they made a dent in the “Blue Wall” in the south by pitching themselves against upcoming government planning reforms during the Tories’ historic defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Of course, there is a limit to how far you can go with such a stance if you also want to campaign for more homes. As one Green Party aide put it, standing a “green and pleasant” candidate in favour of conserving the landscape risks eventually jarring with a national housing policy.

Yet Labour, too, is opposing the reforms, calling them a “developers’ charter” that disempowers local communities from shaping where their live.

“This regression into nimbyism is just a too-easy ploy for political posturing,” says Chris Worrall, a self-described yimby and housing activist who edits the progressive housing policy blog Red Brick, which is linked to the Labour Housing Group.

“It’s not party political, nimbyism. It cuts across Greens, Lib Dems, Tories. It’s sad to see and there aren’t enough yimby politicians out there really banging this drum.”

As a Labour member, voter and activist, he is “disappointed” by Labour’s response to the proposed planning changes – which are intended to make it easier to build – and says its stance could be off-putting to younger voters. He also notes that the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s ten pledges when running for the leadership did not mention housing.

“If Labour really wanted to be hitting the Tories, they would be saying ‘we need to be building more’, and committing to social housing and funding that in smarter ways.”

He warns that Labour’s younger voters are “only going to be getting older, and that should be a worry for the Tories too – when you’ve locked two generations out of ownership and you’re making them pay over 50 per cent of their income on rent”.

Far from threatening democracy, the new rules aimed at loosening up the housebuilding process would be fairer, argues Worrall, who describes the current planning system as a “vetocracy”. “People just veto anything and everything,” he says. “This is the noisy, privileged few who are voters, who are homeowners, who have all of the things other people want and they’re preventing others from having.”

He walks the walk, too, supporting three housing association “infill” projects (when new houses are built on vacant or underused plots) within 50 metres of his own home, and the construction of a large tower block 150 metres down the road, alongside regeneration of the high street.

“I chair the local residents’ association, and I’m supportive of it all,” he says.

Where I live, neighbours watch the works unfold with a mix of weariness and curiosity. There is already a mini-campaign rumbling against the rumoured installation of outdoor ping-pong tables. I may not be living beside the rolling Chiltern Hills, but it has become all too clear to me how central people’s sense of place – and peace – is to their mentality. In a country suffering a yearly shortage of social rent homes of 90,000, politicians must navigate those instincts with care.

*Polling conducted on 29 July 2021, with a sample size of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain.