Aerial view of East London suburb, Thames Gateway, London UK. (Photo by BuildPix/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

NIMBYs are the real revolutionaries

Think tank-driven Street Votes policy risks trampling on middle-class dreams


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On Silverdale Gardens, a cat is yawning in the torpid summer sunshine. This immaculate cul-de-sac of bungalows doesn’t feel like an economic and cultural battlefield. I’m in New Barnet, where Hertfordshire makes a thrust deep into the belly of historic Middlesex: it’s the liminal region mythologised by the writer Nick Papadimitriou as the “Scarp”, where the Thames basin rises to the chalk uplands to the north. 

“So they’ll knock down my house?” asks one homeowner. As carefully as I can, I explain the concept behind Street Votes. 

Street Votes is the flagship housing policy idea that has emerged from the right-leaning think tanks of SW1, and I have come to test the reaction first hand. The policy brainiacs argue that we’re in a housing crisis, and that high property prices and rents are a problem of supply. Their favoured solution to increase the number of homes, Street Votes, would allow residents to permit development on their street or block. 

To illustrate how successful this could be, Street Votes advocates cite a street of 26 post-war bungalows that are 15 minutes-walk from both New Barnet rail and Cockfosters Tube stations, so here I am. But don’t worry, they’ll only knock down your house if enough of your neighbours vote for it.

Street Votes would allow residents to share in the “uplift” — a word that occurs 72 times in the 2021 Policy Exchange paper Strong Suburbs written by Ben Southwood and Samuel Hughes. This was Street Votes’ debutant ball. Both authors belong to what Building magazine called “a tight clique” of interlinking Tory-inclined wonks that has promoted Street Votes relentlessly. Its advocates are confident that block votes can bypass “Nimbyism”, or the grassroots local opposition to development.

 “This paper squares the circle,” enthused the conservative writer Ed West, endorsing Strong Suburbs, looking forward to “hundreds of thousands of good-quality, sustainable homes” in the places where homes are scarcest — but without the near-suicidal political risk. But none will be on Silverdale Gardens, it seems, where householders aren’t enticed by the prospect of “uplift”. 

Bungalows are now considered “gold dust” for downsizing elderly homeowners and councils are blocking development orders. As for knocking all the existing properties down? Yes, that is the idea.

“We assume that even in areas where no additional height is possible, the property is demolished and rebuilt in line with the design codes proposed in the street vote,” Southwood and Hughes explain. This entails “using their driveways” to build on, and “digging Georgian-style basements”. Everyone in Silverdale Gardens would need to live offsite for a year. It all seems a rather brutal proposition for the residents, who all seem to be looking forward to a tranquil retirement — not to mention the cat.

In May 2022, Street Votes was endorsed by the Government, but any euphoria was short-lived. The very next day, The Daily Telegraph’s front page Matt cartoon showed a householder arriving home to find it has been demolished by a bulldozer: a neighbour informs him: “Everyone in the street voted to knock down your house.” 

The cartoonist, Matt Pritchett, highlights the most obvious problem with Street Votes: it is easy to misunderstand. But the gag also captures another flaw. Street Votes is supposed to punch a hole through the thicket of planning laws, regulations and community objections — but consent can only flow one way, in favour of development. Why wouldn’t the hated “Nimbys” then demand their own street votes, to kill approved development? It seems remarkably naïve to think they wouldn’t.

“Streets that voted for more density would become extremely valuable, so there would be a big incentive for homeowners in high-demand areas to vote for greater density,” suggests Sam Bowman, formerly of the Adam Smith Institute, in an essay called The Housing Theory of Everything, co-written with Southwood. 

However, as I discovered in New Barnet, Street Votes didn’t need to be savaged by satire — such flaws were built-in, and readily evident. Very few streets lend themselves to enhanced densification — and residents are not automatically enthused by the prospect. They put a greater value on their tranquillity and the existing character of their neighbourhood than any “uplift” posited by an economics graduate, for some things in life are simply more valued than money. 

So why the dogged attachment to such an improbable idea? The clue lies in West’s metaphor of a squared circle: development is complex and frustrating, and the desire for a magic sword to cut through cynical developers, poor design, and local opposition appeals. But it is magical thinking.

Street Votes is the brainchild of Create Streets, a planning and design consultancy and advocacy group led by Nicholas Boys Smith, a former McKinsey analyst. Hughes provides the genteel aesthetic guidance. “Gentle density” is their mantra, which means 3-4 storey terraces, or 5-6 storey mid-rise developments. They’re lovely to look at: all mansard roofs and tasteful tree-lined mews. 

Boys Smith stepped into Sir Roger Scruton’s shoes at the late philosopher’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and put his stamp on it. His “Office of Place” now sits within Michael Gove’s Levelling Up department, where urban design codes are being tweaked. It’s not hard to see why, for in conversation, Boys Smith fizzes with enthusiasm.

But the detached and semi-detached housing that the public really wants are not their focus. To the big housebuilders, such as John Tutte, the former executive chairman of Redrow who is now at Bellway, Scruton’s work had been hijacked by elite opinion, the Gentle Density urbanites. “We need less utopia and more down-to earth quality design appreciated by the man on the street,” sneered Tutte, after the Commission’s interim report.

Some of the think-tankers have sought to borrow the YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) branding used in left-leaning urban development circles in the United States. But it hasn’t caught on beyond SW1. It was always going to be an uneasy alliance, says the architecture critic, Tim Abrahams, and what really unites these young policy enthusiasts is a horror of what lies beyond the ring road.

The Street Votes lot share the same revulsion for the suburbs as anti-car progressives, but they do so in a young fogeyish way: it’s still a horror of the people who live there though. Suburban people are considered with contempt. So are the houses and semi-detacheds that they overwhelmingly prefer. Outside London, Tutte maintains, house buyers have “a strong inclination … for a detached or semi-detached property as opposed to any form of dense housing scheme.”

So is Yimbyism just another manifestation of the Left’s hatred of the suburbs? Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and social critic, has been the leading critic of this prejudice for over two decades. Suburbs are where people want to live and raise families, he writes. They incubate real diversity and social integration, while urban environments remain low-trust environments. Densification, he writes, is regressive: “a kind of new feudalism, where questions of land ownership and decision-making would be shifted away from citizens, neighbours, or markets, and left in the hands of self-appointed ‘betters’”.

“It is one of the oddest aspects of contemporary ‘progressive’ thought that it seeks to undermine even modest middle-class aspirations such as living in a quiet neighborhood or a single-family house,” Kotkin laments. But it’s more complicated than that.

Matteo Tiratelli, a political sociologist at University College, London, discerns the utilitarian intellectual influence of Effective Altruism (EA) in the UK’s housing policy debates. 

“[Housing] has been a priority issue for Effective Altruism for several years,” Tiratelli writes, highlighting a new EA-funded operation called Labour for the Longlist, which has provided a full-time researcher for Wes Streeting MP: “Street Votes is one of their six key campaigns,” notes Tiratelliti. 

Boys Smith rejects the accusation that Gentle Density is another manifestation of such hostility. “It’s fair to say we do less work in the suburbs, but we’re not anti the suburbs,” he tells me. “I grew up in them. A distinction between us and most urbanists is that we’re respectful and inspired by the lifestyle that’s the preference of the people.” As an example, he thinks Poundbury unfairly criticised for its parking space. And the absence of design codes for suburbia is temporary: they’re currently being written, he explains.

Rosie Pearson, chairman of the Community Planning Alliance which helps over 600 community groups oppose development, credits Boys Smith for raising the debate. The Create Streets emphasis on higher quality urban mid-rise design is a positive, she thinks. It’s offering the public more choice than a small home with a garden or a tower block.

But if Street Votes represents the tasteful, if other-worldly side of urban planning activism, others are far less restrained. They maintain that “Build-Nothing Britain” is the fault of the selfish older generations.

Among those angered by it is James Sean Dickson, a financial services analyst, who blogged a widely-shared piece called “The Triumph of Janet — And How Boomer Entitlement Stole Your Prosperity” that drips with contempt: “Janet Slimfast is 67. She is everywhere. And Janet votes. Councillors fear her.” Planning and housing policy on Twitter has become one long howl of rage, drenched in intergenerational resentment. Another asked “Do NIMBYs have emotions?” Echoing Greta Thunberg, the Millennials and Gen Ys insist: you’ve stolen our future!

“Build, build, build is the solution to all our problems we’re told. We get it all the time,” sighs Pearson. “I haven’t found a proposal that doesn’t have flaws left right and centre, where the analysis doesn’t stack up,” she says. Look more closely and plans often envisage that villages are doubled in size, with no additional infrastructure. 

It’s easy to understand why Barnet is Ground Zero in the planning debates, when the local roads of the old market town are jammed, even on a quiet weekday. It doesn’t seem at all selfish or irrational to oppose development that increases pressure on health services, schools and transport, and which will invariably make one’s life worse. But the cry that opponents are “selfish” is echoed almost nightly by Tom Harwood on GB News, where both the presenter and Jacob Rees-Mogg maintain “the answer is supply not demand”. 

They’re particularly furious at what they see as a concession to local development opposition: the axing of mandatory targets. But such rage may be misplaced. In reality, prices are set by both supply and demand, and the supply side has been vigorous. 

A short walk up the Scarp from New Barnet, Hadley Common gives the visitor panoramic views over London — and there are cranes as far as the eye can see. Developments in Hendon, Colindale and Tottenham have added tens of thousands of new homes. We’re enjoying a 30-year housing boom. 

In 2015, Shelter and KPMG called for 250,000 new homes a year to be built — a target we’ve come close to achieving. Not since the early 1970s has the UK seen over 200,000 new homes completed annually for such a sustained period. 

In 2019/20, over 242,000 were completed. For four successive years new homes have exceeded household formation quite handsomely. Today, Lilico echoes his cry: “there is no housing shortage”. For as readers on conservative sites invariably point out when they’re invited to ridicule “NIMBYs”, portraying housing as a supply crisis omits something rather important: housing demand. 

“Guido, you’re totally out of touch here,” writes “Dalesman”, one of the readers of the Guido Fawkes blog, in a typical comment. “NIMBY is a badge of honour, not an insult … People are far more bothered by immigrants than the ‘housing crisis’.” The “J’accuse” Substack agreed: “There is a gulf of understanding between neoliberals and multivarious stakeholders which neither side is really willing to address: immigration.”

They may have a point. Net migration exceeded 606,000 in the calendar year to December 2022. 

Voters who chose to “take back control” in the 2016 Brexit referendum may view housing and planning rather differently than the elites of SW1. Perhaps they hoped for a more ambitious future for their children than permanent wage competition, and insecure work in fulfilment warehouses or call centres. 

But business has carried on as before: the national conversation they hoped for never happened. In her brief and catastrophic period as Prime Minister, supply-sider Liz Truss even called for more migration. The YIMBYs would be happy enough with that. 

In the great housing debate we find two visions of conservatism in sharp conflict

Perhaps we should view “NIMBYism” as a new grassroots political phenomenon, a continuation of Brexit, although, of course, many voted Remain. It needs a rebrand — something like the “managed development movement”. In the great housing debate we find two visions of conservatism in sharp conflict. The younger, angry, open-borders, supply-side economic liberals who enthuse about “gentle density” and wish to rip up the Green Belt are in open warfare with those conservatives who would like to preserve the character of the country, and their existing communities. Supporters of Street Votes are keen on more migration. Bowman has explicitly listed both Street Votes and more support for immigration as two of his three key policies to revive neoliberalism this decade.

I return from the bungalows of New Barnet more convinced by how far our policy elites are from their country. Ideally, one imagines, they would choose a whole new set of voters.

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