Ros Coward in Guardian – The Dangerous Myths of the Avocado Super Nimbys

There is nothing worse than a Nimby denying there is anything wrong with being a Nimby and then peddling their usual long discredited myths.

Ros Coward Guardian

[developers]…spin a narrative that the planning system – manipulated by obstructive nimbys – prevents much-needed homes for the less well-off from being built. 

But the narrative is of course nonsense. The crisis in housing is not of capacity but of affordability. Outside urban areas, the vast majority of houses being built are four- to five-bedroom executive-style housing on greenfield sites: completely out of the reach of first-time buyers or those on council waiting lists.

Such houses, the wrong houses on the wrong sites, won’t bring prices down. Especially when other government policies, such as help to buy and stamp duty holidays, inflate them.

Nonsense such housing is unaffordable because we aren’t building enough houses leaving only the richest able to afford them. If we forced all houses to be built as affordable only but increase house building then the most well off would still be active in the housing market driving house prices up ever further as they would be forced to bid on existing housing stock rather than new housing. Also even executive housing reduces overall prices through the ‘filtering effect’ which means that removal of those buying new homes enables, at the margin, the poorest marginal new house buyer to enter the market, most likely through buying run down existing stock and upgrading up. (note this is a triple up supply side effect not a trickle down demand side effect). What is more this narrative is not spun mainly by developers. Large oligopolistic house buildingers are not baying for reform but progressives, in the states the YIMBY movement is largely left wing.

Nor is it correct that locals have successfully been blocking planning consent. The government claims we must build 1m new homes – but a million houses already have planning permission, yet remain unbuilt. The real villains are the developers and land agents, who increasingly negotiate planning permission and then sell on the land to developers, who control its release for building. It’s not nimbys but profitability that determines when and where building happens.

No we consent only around 60% of the 300k houses we need and have done (net of demolitions) since the war. We consent less than any other developed nation, and have the most expensive housing, no coincidence. 1 million unbuilt homes is less than 4 years supply – plans need to plan for at least 15-30 years – and largely needed to maintain a supply chain of consents by housebuilders. There is a problem of housebuilders limiting supply to maintain an ‘absorption rate’ which planning reform will help as it will break large sites up to many smaller builders, as on the continent, but even if the absorption rate problem was solved we would still need more unbuilt permissions in the future to maintain a stock of future consents. This NIMBY fallacy is a classic case of confusing stocks (unbuilts) and flows (permissions). The problem is the flow of permission is too low.

Dismissing anyone who opposes this as a nimby allows developers to present themselves as holding the moral high ground. Nimbys are anti-progress refuseniks, they say, while developers are good for the economy, bringing improved infrastructure and even environmental gains. Yet anyone who has been involved in a local campaign will tell you how rarely developers contribute to local infrastructure, and how frequently finished developments can differ from original plans. The proportion of affordable housing is invariably the first casualty, renegotiated downwards as soon as planning permission is achieved.

This is a silly zero sum game fallacy. Developers are often bad people therefore development is bad. Logically it doesn’t follow. No Nimbys are bad people also because they have dangerous wrong ideas, like eugenicists they are just plane wrong on the facts and there ideas on development HAS to be discredited by the progressive left otherwise it will have the worst distributional impacts on the worst off. Which is why I call the NIMBYs, Avocado NIMBYs, brown on the inside and green on the outside, and often allying whenever they can, which we see all around the world, with keep out the oiks and poor, blood and soil nationalists.

As for biodiversity benefits, the country is littered with housing developments with failed gestures towards habitat creation – dried-up ponds and dead saplings in plastic tubes. In a campaign I am involved with to save York Gardens in Wandsworth, the developer’s plans initially retained a magnificent, protected mature black poplar tree. But once local consultees had dispersed, thinking their beloved tree was safe, developer Taylor Wimpey returned to the planning committee insisting that the route they now needed for their cables involved felling the tree.

So because it often goes wrong we shouldn’t even try to enhance biodiversity as part of new development? Again no logic here, its a council of despair. There are hundreds of example of transformational biodiversity net gain schemes, for example the largest carbon capture project in the UK, the creation of new slat marshes at Wallingsea island, was created through spoil from construction of HS1.

Fundamentally, these campaigns are about the wider issue of biodiversity protection. What matters to each of them is the protection of everyday nature – those undesignated green spaces and natural resources that attract visitors, which support wildlife and help combat climate change. Many of these sites are worryingly vulnerable. They have no formal protection, there’s often no data on the wildlife there, and developers often regard them as vacant lots.

There are many valued local green spaces, but national planning policy sets clear standards of what characteristics they must have to protect. What Ros is arguing here is dismiss these and protect every blade of grass just because someone nearby wants to stop development on it. The truth is the vast majority of new wildlife areas, now parks and new children’s play areas are created as part of new development. The vast majority of new development on greenfield sites takes place on fields where intensive farming has bled all natural value from them, and where national policy and soon the law will require an uplift in biodiversity when they are developed.

Nimby can be used as a convenient, pejorative term to downgrade the importance of wildlife protection while obscuring arguments about who actually benefits from developments and which people lose out. Perhaps we don’t have to abolish the term altogether, but rather repurpose it. Nimby should no longer stand for “not in my back yard” but “nature in my back yard”. Because in my opinion, it’s certainly not a selfish thing to worry about the guardianship of future biodiversity.

Sorry NIMBY you have convinced noone who knows the facts about the economics of housing development, your arguments drip selfishness and privilege. By far the best way to have nature in my back yard is to build millions more backyards.

One thought on “Ros Coward in Guardian – The Dangerous Myths of the Avocado Super Nimbys

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