Guest blog: Reshuffles, ‘dither’ and nimbyism

New ministers and a fresh new package of announcements – it’s been an exciting couple of days in the housing world, although I was saddened to see that the PM and DPM didn’t don hard hats and high-vis vests this morning, as is customary when announcing anything to do with house building…

Here, our guest blogger Ben Marshall of Ipsos MORI takes a closer at the politics and public opinions behind the recent announcements, and asks whether the culture of ‘nimbyism’ will continue to hold back a much needed surge in housing supply.

Ben Marshall is Research Director at Ipsos MORI.

It has been said that the appointments this week of Mark Prisk and Nick Boles to housing and planning (‘green belt’) portfolios respectively, reflects a desire on the part of the Coalition Government to unlock the housing market, and particularly house building.

Both have reputations for clear thinking and getting things done, and Prisk’s previous role at BIS involved him tackling red tape. Today, the Prime Minister talked of getting ‘planners off our backs’ as he launched measures to kick-start house building. Last weekend he said: ‘Frankly, I am frustrated by the hoops you have to jump through to get anything done – and I come back to parliament more determined than ever to cut through the dither that holds this country back.’

The suggestion is that there are systemic blocks frustrating Britain’s ambition. But the PM also referred to the problem of ‘nimbyism’, returning to a theme in speeches he made when Opposition Leader; in a 2006 speech on first-time buying he talked about a ‘BANANA’ tendency (‘Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone’).

This worry about anti-building public sentiment is well justified, and plays out locally too. The LGA recently found councils reporting public opposition to be the biggest block to building new homes. Ipsos MORI has similarly found evidence of an ‘enough already’ sentiment to local opinion, worries about greenfield development and inadequate infrastructure improvements to sustain house building.

At the same time though, ‘nimbyism’ is an over-simplistic caraciture of public opinion. While few would probably endorse building in their own back yards(!), there is clear support for house building in the local area if it has legacy in terms of affordable homes, jobs and growth. There are ‘progress’ sentiments as well as ‘protect’ ones. Opinion is fluid, not fixed.

In some ways, we are where we were, with all to play for. The National Planning Policy Framework streamlined the planning system; localism requires local solutions and the involvement of wider constituencies than ‘local vocals’. This is a long-term project.

In the short-term, giving homeowners and businesses a permission ‘holiday’ to build much bigger extensions might provide a valuable shot in the arm for the construction industry, and the Government has today pulled several other levers to stimulate building.

But beyond that, if a real step-change in construction (and housing choices) is to be realised, housing issues and house building need greater ongoing political attention nationally and locally. Leaving this space to the market, hoping that the public will get behind building and that nimbyism won’t prevail, is unlikely to be enough.