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  • Writer's pictureOpine

The Rise of the NIMBY's

The rising problems of dogmatic localism and how it affects housing.

By Eitan Godsi

house on top of a pile of pennies
Photo via Tinnakorn courtesy of Adobe Stock

For all its mixed record, housing policy has been the longest failure of the Conservative government. Therefore, its absence from the five top priorities parroted by Tory MPs was widely noticed. This failure of theirs predates the Conservative government, stretching back two decades to the mantra of localism. Efforts like Help to Buy, the recommitment to build a million homes or build on brown sites, and Michael Gove’s plan for 250,000 homes near Cambridge - have either floundered or faced difficulty because of the entrenched dogma of localism. Cutting housing targets for a local government sent a message of inconsistency and failure to see that supply side reform needs intervention. Earlier supply side initiatives by Cameron, such as cutting housing paperwork met a similar fate in the face of consolidated local interests.

Over decades localism has been a proud torch wielded since new labour and through the Cameron years and up to the present. It has raised dogmatic support, and such a place in political rhetoric that it is always praised publicly – and is promoted in every party manifesto since. There are many positive and successful consequences of this, but it has held back housing for decades, choking off supply when it is most needed, and developing a culture of fortified local interests.

Across the whole of the UK, this has been the greatest propagator of NIMBY culture amongst all parties. There have been countless proposals rejected by local councils in recent years, and still there has been little courage to challenge local interests - despite calls from within the conservative party. A 2022 report by the countryside charity CPRE noted there was space for 1.2m on Brown sites across England, though only 45% was approved, with 550,000 approved homes on the backlog.

According to the government’s own data on local authority residential planning approval between the 2012/13 and 2022/23 from English councils shows despite some fluctuation across the board, major residential approvals fell from 82% to 80% ending on a low, going from 4,317 to 4,221, despite a high point of 6,617. Minor residential projects, despite a high figure of 43,610 approvals in 2016/17, figures went from 33,068 in 2012/13 to 30,571 in 2022/23, with an approval rate fluctuating between 76% and 72%, ending on a low.

Naturally, there are many caveats and rightful rejections, but this stagnation in housing approval data by local authority paints a stark picture. Over the same period, the wider UK population has grown by about 5.7% and average housing price has leapt from £165,908 in January 2012 to £294,000 in December 2022. Clearly the scale of the challenge requires a more proactive approach, and a consistent increase in housing production, not stagnation at a time of growing demand.

This demonstrates another symptom - industry has not grown in scale because localism has kept supply low. This further deters investments in increased housing production, as well as burgeoning legal and red tape delays across the board. Council bureaucracy and inertia, powered by the political dogma of localism, has enabled this outright failure at a time of crisis. No response to this crisis has dealt with the main issue holding back supply.

The mantra of Nimbys has made it difficult for the government to reclaim power in the areas which it has failed. It is irrational to continue nurturing a political culture that makes it impossible to take on local government. The legal system is a model precedent that on some issues there must be a higher power. When important cases are in dispute, local and lesser courts may go through the appeals to the supreme court. We should not shy away from central power where it is in principle plainly needed.

One solution which would go a long way is new legislation to have all major Housings projects over a budget threshold rejected by local government sent back to the department for Housing, the Local Government, and communities for re-evaluation. This would be further examined by a small committee, working around the clock delivering a summary report to the secretary of state or wider ministerial team, to approve or reject. If the project is recommended for approval by central government, the council leader of the involved area must meet the secretary of state or ministerial team within for instance, a month to explain the project rejection. The minister could act as a judge comparing both a summary from the civil service teams and one present if required, with the account of the council leader, to make final approval.

No doubt this would provoke a tsunami of opposition, both from within and without the government. But it could certainly draw in younger generations and provides an opportunity to win the support of young professionals and new families across the country, which develops into a long-term voter base. Equally, there is no silver bullet and wider reforms are needed, but this is the right start.

The simple threat itself may be enough to force councils to reconsider their position. This is just one option, but the writing on the wall is plain; if dogmatic localism is not challenged and housing policy is not centralised, local interests will by inertia keep supply down. This precedent could be revolutionary, for instance in the expansion of wind farms to hit net zero, or nuclear energy plants for energy security. Taking localism on requires great political courage, but a failure to tackle the root cause will only allow a well-intentioned mantra to keep crippling house supply and deepen the crisis.


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