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6 August 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:28pm

Nimbyism might win elections, but it will still ruin us all

Every time a politician weaponises nimbyism for electoral reasons they make it harder to make the case for the homes that we desperately need.

By Jonn Elledge

Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. Coming just weeks after a local election cycle in which the Tories seemed to have swept all before them – actually they hadn’t, but that was certainly the line – no one really seemed to be expecting much from June’s Chesham & Amersham by-election. Far more interesting, the pundits agreed, would be the Batley & Spen one, two weeks later, which Labour seemed all but certain to lose. Amersham, though? Meh, easy Tory hold. 

It wasn’t: the Liberal Democrat candidate, Sarah Green, won more than half the vote, taking the seat on a 25 point swing from the Tories. If that were to be replicated across the country, Twitter user @ElectionMapsUK noted gleefully, it would net the yellow team 318 seats and a majority of eight. (Oh, and the pundits were wrong about Batley & Spen, too.) This was never really going to happen, obviously, but still, the Tories were defeated in their own heartlands! For anyone who doesn’t think much of the government, it should have been glorious.

There was just one tiny dark spot on the horizon. The Lib Dems hadn’t won by persuading the residents of affluent south east Buckinghamshire of, say, the importance of liberal values. Green’s victory had been built largely on opposing both HS2 (which passes through the constituency) and the government’s Planning Bill (“a developer’s free for all”). The voters of Chesham & Amersham had not suddenly open their eyes to the true horrors of the Conservative government they had hitherto supported: the Lib Dems had won through weaponised nimbyism.

This, to me, feels like a bad thing. The Home Counties are desperate for more housing, and without HS2, or something very like it, the rail network is going to break. You’d imagine that any party whose name pops up as a potential candidate for a progressive alliance would be in favour of such things. On some level at least, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey clearly agrees: after the by-election, he told Andrew Marr, “I’m actually a yimby”.

But he isn’t. The essence of nimbyism (it stands for “not in my back yard”; do keep up) is to support more housing or infrastructure in theory, but to oppose specific proposals, possibly all specific proposals, in practice. Davey can talk about his party’s decentralised decision making structure until the cows come home (which they often do in Buckinghamshire, where there is no shortage of green fields disappointingly unoccupied by housing): so long as the Lib Dems are content to use housebuilding as a wedge issue, he leads a nimby party.

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In this, at least, he’s not alone. Much of the Greens’ recent surge in council seats has also been credited to the party’s willingness to oppose development (it is, after all, so much more palatable to say you support trees than that you oppose cheaper housing or newcomers). And in the Essex-tinged suburbs of London this week, Ilford MP Sam Tarry – once seen as a Corbynite firebrand – was to be found calling for Sadiq Khan to intervene in the redevelopment of a Tesco car park. Lorimer Village, as the development has been named, will include 1,280 new homes, more than a third of them classed as “affordable”, as well as a new primary school, in a site immediately next to a Crossrail station. It is hard to imagine a brownfield site more suitable for housing. Yet the Labour left MP is opposing it anyway.

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There’s no mystery as to why parties do this. Nimbyism is incredibly popular – if you had to outline the policy preferences of the British electorate, then “build more bloody housing (just, not anywhere around here)” would be a pretty good summary. And the voices of those who live in an area will always, by definition, be louder than those of the (generally younger, generally poorer) people who’d benefit from development.

So there are always votes to be had in opposing development, however sensible that specific development looks. In 2016, another Lib Dem by-election winner, Sarah Olney, was to be found campaigning to protect a view from her Richmond Park constituency, which she claimed would be ruined by the addition of a couple of tower blocks in Stratford, 15 miles away on the other side of central London. I don’t think I’m being unduly cynical in suggesting her motives may have been less the view than the votes.

But just because something is popular, that doesn’t mean it isn’t bad – and nimbyism is very, very bad indeed. Britain’s housing crisis isn’t purely a result of a supply shortage, but there’s no route out of it that doesn’t involve building a lot more homes, especially in the south east. Every time a politician weaponises nimbyism for short-term, electoral reasons they make it harder to even make the case for the homes that we need, let alone to actually build the bloody things.

It won’t end well. It already hasn’t.

[See also: My brush with the new nimbyism]