On NIMBYs and the ‘battle for the countryside’

I have just seen that a piece I wrote last month for Show House, the house builders’ magazine, has been published. Here it is.

The programme for the Whathouse? ‘battle for the countryside debate’, in which CPRE’s Paul Miner is taking part, asks: ‘Will the UK’s NIMBY culture ever change? How can the new homes industry win over its harshest critics?’

Well, this critic might be more easily won over if the industry seemed less obsessed with battling NIMBYs. I do not deny that NIMBYs exist. There will always be people, perhaps even some in the house building industry, prepared to fight for the places they care about.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Fight to save a local school or hospital and you are a community hero. So why should someone trying to save their local countryside be branded a selfish NIMBY? And looking at some of the eyesores that have won planning permission over the years – not all housing developments by any means – anyone can wish that NIMBYs were sometimes more successful.

Nevertheless, ‘not in my backyard’ implies that something bad is acceptable as long as it is in someone else’s someone else’s backyard. That is not a defensible stance, and certainly not one that is attractive to CPRE, an organisation set up by architects and planners, among others, and committed as much to promoting good quality development as to stopping things being built.

Our first statement of aims and objects in 1926 declared: ‘It is not intended to object to the reasonable use and development of rural areas: it is the abuse and bad development of such areas that requires restriction…. It is not intended that CPRE shall be a merely negative force. It is part of its policy to promote suitable and harmonious development.’ It is hard for an organisation with ‘protect rural England’ in its title to promote development in the countryside, but we try to stay broadly true to our original mission.

The question, of course, is what is meant by ‘suitable development. CPRE accepts that there is a housing crisis, in the sense that far too many people live in housing conditions that shame a rich nation.

  • We need to build more homes than we have for several years.
  • Some of these will have to go on greenfield land.
  • We have to build where people want to live and work.
  • New building need not make places worse: towns and cities can be enhanced by high quality, well-designed developments, and no one would wish a Cotswold village unbuilt.

But agreeing on these simple statements, which I hope we do, does not resolve every argument. On the question of exactly how many homes we need to build, for instance, CPRE is increasingly suspicious of the notion of ‘objectively assessed need’, and opposed to the excessive and unachievable housing numbers being imposed on many local authorities. House builders will not meet these targets – only a return to pre-1979 levels of public sector building would make them achievable – but they will cherry pick the most profitable sites, generally greenfield sites.

Similarly, while it is obvious that we have to build where people want to live, we should not just assume that the population of the wider south east will grow inexorably and ‘low demand’ areas of the north continue to decline. There is no inevitability in current trends continuing. The population of London declined by two million between 1939 and the mid-1980s, but is now rising steadily towards a new high. When I first started visiting Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow in the 1980s, few would have predicted their current vibrancy. And at that time, Milton Keynes was still more of a joke than the popular and successful town it is today.

Public policy has a role to play in influencing where people live. We should not leave everything to the market, or the house builders.

So, moving beyond the tedious rhetoric of NIMBY versus despoiler of the countryside, how can we improve the conversation about where new housing goes? Back in 2011, CPRE proposed that the industry should commit to five principles to help minimise opposition to new housing.

  1. A brownfield-first approach to identifying sites
  1. High design and building standards
  2. New homes with decent space standards
  3. Master planning for better places, not just planning for houses
  4. Industry support for a democratic planning system

At the time – the middle of the debate on the new National Planning Policy Framework, when tempers were frayed – the Home Builders Federation responded by saying that ‘quality and standards are clearly the new NIMBYism’ (that word again).

I hope we can have a better dialogue now. It really should be possible to develop a system that allows for necessary development without unnecessarily damaging the quality of the countryside or the character of towns and villages.

This will require countryside campaigners to be more open to new development, and we are trying. CPRE has been outspoken in calling for many more homes, including affordable homes in rural areas, on the face of it a surprising line from a conservationist organisation.

It will also require the industry as a whole to engage more respectfully with opponents, rather than seeing NIMBYs under every bed; to improve the quality of new developments; to get serious about brownfield development; and to accept that there is sometimes a difference between the interests of a firm’s shareholders and the wider public interest.

4 Responses to “On NIMBYs and the ‘battle for the countryside’”

  1. 1 lovegoostrey September 20, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Reblogged this on LoveGoostrey and commented:
    ..as we’ve said before; small scale, sympathetic to existing residents, in keeping with the countryside and of high quality design that enhances the village and natural landscape….

  2. 2 Alex Hills September 20, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Interesting article just a shame there was no mention of population growth or sustainability. It is the governments choice to allow the population to continue to grow. It is the governments choice not to tackle the immigration issue in a meaningful way thus it fall s to the government to solve the sustainability problem. You can not feed a nation by building on agricultural land!!!! I live in a area that is being swamped with massive planning applications but I am no NIMBY as I oppose building in any part of the countryside. That is why I joined CPRE many years ago and spend more of my free time protecting the countryside than is good for me. There are countless empty or underused home. There is a massive amount of land with planning permission that developers not built on this is where the development needs to be. I am not against building in the rural area but it must be to meet a real local need. I do not agree we should build where people want to live as that is a blueprint for covering some areas in concrete. NO ONE HAS A RIGHT TO LIVE ANYWHERE if there is a property they like and can afford it fine but do not destroy a fast vanishing countryside to enable people to live in a particular area. Remember DESIRE ISS NOT THE SAME THING AS NEED!!

  3. 3 Arthur Franks September 23, 2014 at 8:16 am

    I agree with Alex, We have a village near us that has been developed with houses that are unsellable some are still standing empty 5 years on. We need affordable houses not houses with 5 en suite bedrooms. The same builder still has a big land bank but is not building. I guess he is holding on ready to sell and make a big profit on the land.

  1. 1 A framework for asking better questions about GOOD development | Calchas Trackback on September 22, 2014 at 9:58 am

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