Nimbys back on the planning agenda?

A week ago, George Osborne announced some radical planning reforms as part of the Summer Budget, in response to the fact that, as he put it, “Britain has been incapable of building enough homes.” However you look at it, a big part of the problem with planning is that 52% of people either do not actively support housebuilding in their local area, or are neutral on the issue. So the question is, how do you mobilise more than half the population to actively support building the homes that we desperately need?

What are the proposals?

The Government proposes to:

  1. Give Londoners the general power to extend their homes upwards by two extra stories to match the height of their neighbour’s house. However, if neighbours object then it will have to go through the normal planning process.
  2. Legislate to grant automatic planning permission on brownfield sites identified on statutory registers. This is billed as to give England a ‘zonal’ system of planning, akin to those in many other countries.

Sounds great, so what’s the problem?

Evidence shows that supporters of housebuilding outweigh opponents by a ratio of 5:3. While this sounds positive, the level of active opposition is more than double the rate of active support. So while people recognise the need to build more homes, there are clearly things that turn people into Nimbys (Not in My Back Yard!), which need addressing as part of any planning reform.

We’ve done some polling on general attitudes towards opposing house building, which shows that impact on local road and green space are the biggest reasons for opposing local housebuilding for UK adults.

Below: Main reasons for opposing local house building


Of particular interest is that 52% of those in rural areas are concerned about housebuilding ruining the way the local area looks, compared to just 36% of those in urban areas. Housebuilding in urban areas still raises other concerns, such as the impact it would have on local healthcare (strain on resources), and that it would impact negatively on schools and educational facilities.

Giving Londoners the power to build up may sound like a great idea to gain more homes. However, automatic rights to build up may not result in the building of additional flats above existing homes. Residents could instead use this new power to expand their existing home. Furthermore, under current legislation, a planning notice has to go up, so that the local community can engage with the planning application and submit comments/objections. However, under this new system, the automatic right to build up means that no planning notice is required. This lack of community engagement could lead to an increase in neighbour disputes, fuelling Nimby feelings. This in turn could mean an increase in the number of objections to local development.

We don’t yet know the details of the proposal, such as whether there will be exemptions on heritage or environmental grounds. But if there are, there could be a rush to list old buildings on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest in order to halt extensions. There could also be objections on the grounds of putting strain on local infrastructure and the way the local area looks (especially in rural areas). In other words, efforts to bypass Nimbys may just increase Nimbyism.

Then what’s the solution?

At Shelter we are keen to get more homes built – but we recognise that that can’t be done by ignoring local people’s concerns.

So the first thing to acknowledge is that Nimbys do raise genuine concerns. The impact of new development on local roads, taking up green space, impact on local schools and healthcare facilities, are all very real and understandable anxieties.

Local communities are not rigid in their ways of thinking, and always contain a variety of views. The next step is to identify these different voices, because the same approach won’t work for everyone. We even publish a free toolkit to help communities and promoters of development to do this.

Shelter’s entry to the Wolfson Economics Prize identified four typical groups of residents affected by planning policies:

  1. Directly affected residents (within the development zone)
  2. Die-hard opponents
  3. Natural supporters
  4. Waverers

Die-hard opponents are often the loudest voices – and are unlikely to be appeased. Natural supporters, on the other hand, are the least likely to respond to planning applications – so getting them to voice their support is vital.

To bring waverers and the directly affected round, we have to address their legitimate concerns and ensure proposals reflect their preferences as far as possible. Once legitimate concerns have been tackled, groups A, C, and D can be mobilised into campaigning in favour of the development to try and out-voice group B, resulting in fewer opposition points being placed.

George Osborne’s zoning plan may look like a step in the right direction on paper. However, in practice developers are being given brownfield land to continue with the status quo of housebuilding: building expensive, small homes. We need a new approach, something that gets developers to compete on quality homes for local people. Something that satisfies local concerns.

One of the main barriers to building the affordable homes that we need is the price of land. Shelter proposes extending the ‘zoning’ approach by way of ‘New Homes Zones’ as described in our Building the New Homes we Need report.  With this approach, authorities require developers (private developers, local businesses, public agencies, housing associations, etc.) to compete with each other on the quality of their offer. In this scenario, the winning bid would be awarded to the competitor that provides the best value for the local area. This approach would see a lot of the legitimate concerns of Nimbys redressed, by ensuring that development proposals prioritise quality, affordability and community benefit, rather than short term financial gain.