Nimbyism threatens to derail housing growth

Public resistance to house building sets a tough test for local democracy, reports Susanna Gillman.

The two sides are squaring up. Central government with its housing growth agenda is in one corner, local politicians with nimby leanings in the other.

Opposition to housing growth is set to at best delay and at worst ruin the government's aspiration to build more homes to tackle undersupply.

This fundamental division, which runs along party political lines, reared its head once more at a housing and planning conference hosted by the Town and Country Planning Association last week.

Planning minister Yvette Cooper was there to defend the need for more homes and explain why people should accept housing development - to provide social justice for people who cannot afford their own home, to boost economic prosperity and to create sustainable communities for the future.

Cooper pointed to the widening gap between supply and demand. The past 30 years have seen a 30 per cent rise in households but a 50 per cent fall in the number of homes built. "It is little wonder that UK house prices have risen faster than other countries'," she said.

Demand is also set to rise with a growing and ageing population. Just over half of couples in their thirties can afford their own homes at the moment. In 20 years that will have dropped to 30 per cent if no action is taken, warned Cooper.

But although these statistics have been repeated time and again, they have failed to convince many people at a local level where the doctrine of building absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone (BANANA) is taking root. "Some campaigners raise very legitimate questions that we need to answer, but some nimbyism has moved to bananaism," suggested Cooper.

Saxon Homes planning director Robert Gillespie fears that nimbyism at local and regional levels could cause the number of appeals to rise unless there is a shift in political will. "Unless you are in a position to deal with these appeals to get the required scale of development through, then this strategy is doomed to fail," he warned Cooper.

The minister stressed: "We have to go out in every local area and start talking about where their children will be able to buy a home." But she also acknowledged the fine line between winning the argument and bulldozing local opinion. "We have to recognise the importance of local democracy in the debate about land use," she said.

But shadow minister for deregulation John Redwood, who set out his response to the Barker review at the conference, says that it is not unreasonable to take a nimby stance. Potential loss of views, noise disturbance, pressure on services and transport impacts are all fair reasons to object, claims the Conservative MP for Wokingham.

"We all have something of the nimby in us," the former shadow environment secretary admits. He wants to see better community consultation and more power for local councils. Developments should be designed as whole communities rather than adding housing estates onto existing settlements, he argues.

Growing fears that the next generation will be unable to afford a home may have some effect in shifting public opinion, but the government still has its work cut out. The publication of its response to the Barker review is promised before the end of the year. However, whether it will ease difficulties in the battle to overcome local resistance remains to be seen.

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