Campaign poster against new housing development at Crown Nursery, Ufford, Suffolk, England, UK. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The failure of Harwoodism

YIMBYs need more political sense

Artillery Row

Recently, the Telegraph published a “Nimby’s guide to taking on developers — and winning”. Given the notorious effects of NIMBYism on house prices, perhaps it’s unsurprising it was included in the money section. Let’s have a quick look at the effects of the NIMBY war on having places to live:

The average house price is now around nine times the average earnings. The last time it was this high was in 1876. Whilst wages have been flatlining, house prices have risen 20 per cent in the last five years. As a result of these huge increases home ownership rates are dropping, driven largely by a squeezing of young people out of the market. In 2011, 43 per cent of the 25-to-34 age group were homeowners. Last year it stood at just 24 per cent.

Since nearly half a million social homes have been lost since 2000, these young people are part of an increasingly large cohort who privately rent — but rents are soaring. Now more than 1.6m people “are living in dangerously low-quality homes, plagued with cold, damp and mould — and without functioning bathrooms or kitchens”, and there are a further 1.6m people on the social housing waiting list.

Government now spends £23.4bn a year on housing benefit. That’s more than the MoJ, DfT or the Home Office — simply to enable people to live in a housing market that doesn’t function properly.Why doesn’t the market function? The fact is that Britain is utterly incapable of increasing housing supply.

It’s a question whether the current planning system is capable of increasing supply at all. As the article points out, “Nimbys’ objections will often succeed; a well-organised campaign can stop a project in its tracks.” These anti-development tactics are increasingly utilised to block not just housing but green energy, nurseries and cancer care centres, whilst all the time pressing down on the brow of labour this crown of thorns, this cross of house prices.

For those of us sadly intimate with the planning process, the article highlights with uncomfortable ferocity the ease with which NIMBYs can win. I fought like hell to get on NY’s Strategic Planning committee because I didn’t want it exclusively staffed by councillors with a predisposition to refusal. As a result, I’m almost constantly bombarded with emails objecting to various schemes of various sizes. I’ve yet to receive a single letter of support.

Here is the thing rotten at the heart of the YIMBY movement: for all its column inches, fringe events and dramatic TV moments, it has almost totally failed. As the Telegraph points out, targeting councillors like me is a sound strategy on the grounds that “Councillors are more likely to refuse permission than the technocratic planners”.

The failure to deliver enough supply of homes has held up a whole generation

For a housing radical like me — radical in that I aim to stand on a platform of promoting home ownership and mean it — the lack of practical impact on the planning system leaves me without political cover whilst taking on NIMBYs, the most entrenched and powerful lobby in Britain.

The reason for the total lack of YIMBY ground game is that the movement seems to have completely forgotten that policy derives from politics, not the other way round.

As the authors of the “Housing Theory of Everything” note, housing shortages have effects “on things as wildly different as obesity, fertility, inequality, climate change and wage growth”. The one word this list doesn’t contain is “morals”.

Morally, the failure to deliver enough supply of homes has held up a whole generation on the road to home ownership, preventing people living the kind of lives that Conservatives like me are supposedly in power to enable. As David Willets wrote in The Pinch, “what was previously a normal rite of passage to adulthood has instead become like a scaling peak that can only be conquered after years of hard work and preparation”.

Despite the effects of lack of housing supply, NIMBYs have been gifted the moral high ground. They portray their crusade as a fight against “outsized developers profits” and “unsympathetic, needless overdevelopment”, lightly skipping the fact their actions are directly fuelling a housing crisis.

What YIMBYism needs is a fresh approach, one that recognises the need to both fight the housing battle and win. For those of us determined to build more homes, we must become evangelical about it, constantly reminding people of the moral, social and economic squalor that will result if NIMBYs continue to wield the upper hand.

It’s not impossible to make this case, nor is it unpopular. Recent polling from Onward shows that building “many more houses” would make every age group more likely to vote Conservative. As I wrote for CapX, we can also point to the gains made by Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre in demonstrating a genuinely inspirational commitment to delivering more homes:

He has seized on not only the political and economic benefits, but the moral necessity of building more homes — and has been richly rewarded. Polievere started out with one of the lowest approval ratings of any Canadian Conservative leader but, as Canadians have begun to feel increasingly financially precarious, polls show he has an 8-point lead over Justin Trudeau.

As Churchill once observed, “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” If we are to win the housing crisis, we must win over local communities to the cause first.

NIMBYs are often characterised as immoral monsters. In fact, I’ve spent this whole article doing just that. That is not likely to win many of them over, however. Just because a point is raised by a NIMBY doesn’t make it a bad one. Increasing supply is the right — the only — thing to do. In order to do that, though, we need to allay some of the reasonable concerns that communities raise about new housing.

First amongst them is making sure that houses become homes. Second home ownership is incredibly unpopular, as is foreign ownership in London, which has a heavy distortion effect on the rest of the market. Measures to tackle under-occupancy are low-hanging fruit, too. Why would you be in favour of a new development and the resulting disruption when every time you go for a walk through your village or town, you’re walking past empty homes? Meanwhile, ensuring planning reform is a means to prevent landbanking and end the monopoly of large housebuilders. Giving the communities the safety and security of appropriate development is as essential as finding a way to increase the resulting investment in infrastructure and public services. Reducing immigration, meanwhile, would also reduce demand.

There are many policies that we can implement to improve the housing crisis, but until we win the political fight, we will be pissing in the wind. We need to become serious about this issue. We should no longer tolerate the existence of a propertyless helot class, not for political advantage, but because it is the morally right thing to do.

This is something Conservatives of old understood. One of the great underpinnings of Thatcherism was that enabling people to accrue enough wealth for them to stand on their own two feet would create a society of greater self-respect and dignity. This belief, that an increase in popular participation in capitalism would create a better society, applies as much to this generation as it did to hers. Conservatives must allow the next generations to have the same participatory role in capitalism that their parents enjoyed under Thatcher by enabling wealth accrual amongst today’s workers. This would tackle intergenerational disparity at a time when Britain’s young face a stark future. Once the public is with us, who can be against us?

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