🔒 NIMBYs can’t hold the UK’s housing market hostage forever: Matthew Brooker

Matthew Brooker explores the pervasive influence of the not-in-my-backyard lobby and its crippling impact on housing development. Despite mounting costs and a dire housing shortage, politicians fear antagonizing this powerful force. The solution seems clear: transition from discretionary to rules-based planning, as advocated by experts. Yet, entrenched interests and political inertia obstruct progress. Can Britain escape the grip of NIMBYism and embrace transformative reform?

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By Matthew Brooker

The not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, lobby is a worldwide phenomenon but perhaps nowhere more powerful than in Britain. Its day of reckoning is surely coming. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Politicians live in fear of antagonizing this electorally malignant force. Meanwhile, the costs to a country that has struggled for years with an acute housing shortage continue to mount. The share of successful appeals against planning applications rejected by local authorities rose to more than 30% last year, the highest in at least 10 years, Bloomberg News’s Damian Shepherd reported, citing Freedom of Information responses from seven London boroughs and 20 major towns and cities.

The statistic is testament to the administrative waste and developmental delays that are endemic to the UK’s discretionary planning system, which puts decision making in the hands of elected council members. These local representatives, naturally, are sensitive to the concerns of their constituents. The result is that councils can reject applications even when planning officers judge them to be compliant with policies and recommend approval — because local NIMBYs are opposed.

The paradox of the system is that it is simple to fix. Almost no other country manages its planning in this way. The remedy is to take away the discretionary element and move to a rules-based process — most obviously a zonal planning system where acceptable uses for land are decided in advance (and, ideally, can evolve in response to changing circumstances). Under this mechanism, any plan that meets the zoning requirements is automatically approved. Countries such as France and Japan that follow such an approach build far more homes than the UK, relative to the size of their populations. 

Simple isn’t the same as easy, though. The biggest challenge to implementing such an epochal change is political will. The last attempt was in 2020, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised a move toward a more rules-based system in what he called the most radical planning reform since the end of World War II. That effort foundered the following year when the ruling Conservative Party suffered a crushing by-election defeat in a formerly safe seat, in what was widely seen as a NIMBY backlash to its planning proposals.

The opposition Labour Party promises a “blitz” of planning reform if it wins power, though it has avoided committing to a zonal approach. A reluctance to die on the same hill may be understandable, especially for a party that holds a big lead in opinion polls and has little incentive to take risks ahead of a likely general election later this year. But it’s hard to see piecemeal changes to the system having the kind of transformational impact on housebuilding that Labour is promising. The party has pledged to build 1.5 million homes over the life of the next parliament — essentially replicating the 300,000-a-year target introduced by the Conservatives in 2017. The government has never come anywhere near hitting that goal, with the number of net additional dwellings peaking at less than 250,000 in 2019-2020.

The problem of NIMBYism can be viewed as a form of game theory’s prisoner’s dilemma, a thought experiment in which there are strong  incentives to act selfishly even though cooperation would produce the best collective outcome. In the case of NIMBYs, blocking developments in their own backyards comes at a cost to the economy with a structural housing shortage, and consequent knock-on effects on land and property prices, inequality and productivity. We are all poorer as a result.

A primary objection to ending the discretionary planning system is that it would erode local democracy by removing decisions from elected representatives. This, though, is a misconception. Regulatory zoning would still be subject to democratic oversight but it would “front-load” the process rather than having decisions taken at the application stage, according to Anthony Breach, associate director at Centre for Cities, a London-based think tank that is campaigning for a flexible zonal planning system.

What such a change would mean is taking planning away from district councils and moving it up a tier to county councils, which (outside of towns and cities) are responsible for infrastructure. The two need to be integrated for a zonal system to work. Broadening the area of accountability would also, crucially, weaken the power of the NIMBY lobby.

Given that planning is an important part of district council functions, this would surely meet resistance, so any proposal would probably need to be accompanied by wider devolution, to avoid the impression that this is a power grab by the center. That doesn’t make it a non-starter. “The current system is dysfunctional and unloved,” as Breach told me.

“Don’t mess with the NIMBYs” has been received political wisdom for as long as most can remember, but could the sands be shifting? We are four years on from the last backlash, and Britain’s need to find renewed economic drivers is even more urgent. When the game consistently produces suboptimal outcomes, the incentives need to change. We can’t all be prisoners of this dilemma forever.

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