NIMBY Nation

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 13/12/11]

The publication last week of the 2010 British Social Attitudes report made the headlines because it seemed to indicate that the British population is becoming increasingly self-reliant, self-centred or selfish – depending on your perspective – and more inclined to see poverty and disadvantage as either the fault of the individual or an overgenerous welfare state. As part of the survey respondents gave their views on whether they supported or opposed more homes being built in their area. The headline result that 45% said they’d oppose more local development reached many news bulletins. Less than a third of respondents positively supported new building locally. The inference that many have drawn from this is we are a nation who have fully embraced the “not in my back yard” philosophy.

This question was asked for the first time in 2010 so we can’t know whether this result indicates the population is becoming more or less hostile to development. But if you read more deeply into the survey results – and the full report is available online from the NatCen – you’ll see a more complex picture emerge.

Opposition to development was greatest among home owners (51%), while support was greatest among social renters (48%). Given that home owners dominate most local housing markets, their opposition is highly significance. The report’s author – Glen Bramley from Heriot-Watt University – speculates that the greater support among renters is a combination of a desire to see more homes available for rent and frustrated aspirations to buy. This seems plausible.

When looked at regionally, opposition to development is strongest in the areas where it is most needed – outer London (58%) and the South outside of London (50%). While support for development in the rest of England is not much greater than in the South, declared opposition is lower. Inner London was the only part of the country where the balance of opinion, among those expressing a clear view one way or the other, was positive. But that is the area where there is least scope for development.

Opinion in Wales was not much different to that in England, whereas Scotland stands out in having more people supporting development (43%) than opposing (34%).

The survey explored whether offering communities incentives might tip the balance in favour of local development. The answer was that offering incentives such as more employment opportunities, green spaces and parks, or transport links could sway a significant minority of those who were initially neutral about development (neither supporting nor opposing) and a slightly lower proportion of those who were initially opposed. But when offered a list of eight possible incentives fully 54% of those who were initially strongly opposed to local development remained unmoved. Interestingly, of the eight options offered “financial incentives to existing residents” proved the least popular.

Bramley suggests that if developers and local authorities put together packages of incentives this may succeed in convincing some local communities to support development. However, his results indicate that even faced with such incentives the shift in opinion may not be sufficient to gain overall support in many areas, and that this is particularly the case in areas of the rural South.

These results pose challenges to policy makers. The supply of housing over the last two decades has averaged around 160,000 units a year, when most assessments suggest that well over 200,000 units a year are needed to keep up with growth in the number of households. That suggests the shortage is getting worse. Bringing empty properties back into use, as advocated last week by Channel 4’s Great British Property Scandal, can help. But it won’t solve the problem of shortfall.

The last Labour Government put in place a system top-down regional planning targets to deliver new housing. Local communities may not have liked them but they did force local authorities to identify land for development on a large scale. The Coalition abolished these targets and through the Localism Act is placing more emphasis upon local communities having the power to decide levels of development locally. Over the last couple of years housing supply has collapsed. That is, of course, in part because of the economic crisis, but there is also evidence that, in the absence of top-down targets, plans for housing supply in many local areas have been dramatically scaled back. And that is even before local communities have a more direct say.

The Government favours using the incentive of the New Homes Bonus to encourage communities to support development. While the Government can rightly point to examples of communities benefiting from this bonus and making innovative use of it locally, it is not at all clear that the incentive-based approach will deliver the flow of new development needed.

At the same time, the recent Housing Strategy has proposed allowing developers the scope to renegotiate existing planning permissions so as to remove aspects that make them uneconomic – those aspects are typically affordable rented housing provision and the provision of community facilities. That would tend to make such development less likely to find community approval.

On Monday of this week the National Planning Policy Framework is back in the House at the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee. The framework will embody a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which is supposed to unblock the planning system and lead to increases in new development. Yet, the results of the British Social Attitudes survey suggest that if the Government is serious about localism and placing the views of residents and local communities at the heart of shaping their area then the biggest stumbling block to new development hasn’t been overcome. This may be the reason why at least one representative organisation in the development industry has hinted that the Government may need to re-impose regional targets or else the whole system will grind to a halt.

If we don’t want targets imposed then securing the levels of new development needed to improve housing affordability and meet housing needs in high pressure areas is likely to require a campaign to engage with existing residents. There needs to be a wider sense that meeting community needs includes recognising the needs of those who are currently shut out of the housing market. But that brings us back to where we started. Because that requires people to look beyond their own circumstances and develop a better appreciation of the difficulties faced by others.

Image: © Peter Cox – Fotolia.com

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