Photo by Jung Getty
Artillery Row

Two cheers for YIMBYs

More housing is needed — but there are costs as well

We hate NIMBYs, don’t we, guys? Yes, there’s nothing that unites the millennial left with the millennial right like a 65-year-old homeowner campaigning to stop housing development in an empty field near their village. 

“Nimbyism is very, very bad indeed,” writes Jonn Elledge in the New Statesman. “NIMBYs risk denying my generation an affordable home,” writes Jessica Cole in the Guardian. Meanwhile, Stephen Daisley calls, in this illustrious publication, for an “all-out war on NIMBYism”.

I get it. British housing prices and average income have diverged to a comical degree. The difference has almost doubled in scale since 1980. Then, the average house was worth about four years of work. Now, it is worth more than eight.

Housebuilding, meanwhile, has risen — but slowly, fitfully and in the face of heated protest. Whenever new developments are planned, squadrons of irate homeowners appear, armed to the teeth with interesting facts about very specific kinds of beetle that inhabit the imperilled land, seething with complaints about noise and traffic. As such men and women are extremely dedicated activists and voters, MPs tend to take their side. They are often Tories, but can be Labour or Lib Dem. Slap a half-arsed environmental justification on your campaign, and you can get the Greens involved as well.

All of our homes replaced something more beautiful

Such people are easy to dislike. There were howls of bitter mirth when villagers in North Yorkshire protested against the closure of a local school. The school had no students — young families had been frozen out of the housing market long before.

Such “NIMBYs” (Not in My Back Yard) face ideological resistance from “YIMBYs” (Yes in My Back Yard — a term that seems misplaced inasmuch as YIMBYs rarely have back yards). Freddie Poser made an eloquent and empathetic case against NIMBYism in these pages, lamenting the “bleak national housing picture of which [their] objection forms a part”. YIMBYism is a broader worldview, though, which boils various societal pathologies down to housing shortages. In their essay “The housing theory of everything” (published in the always intriguing Works in Progress), Sam Bowman, John Myers and Ben Southwood argued that “Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates.”

You don’t have to be a middle-class fieldophile to see the potential here for enabling profit-mad property developers. All facetiousness aside, of course it is unpleasant to have nice green spaces concreted over or access to local services endangered. In an effort to respond to fears of hideous new builds and groaning infrastructure, Ben Southwood and Dr Samuel Hughes wrote “Strong Suburbs” for Policy Exchange — a report that argues for mild, adaptive densification and the democratisation of development with “street votes”. The Conservatives are testing it out.

It is an interesting idea, and one worth taking seriously, but I think it runs into the Carrot Problem. I basically dislike carrots. You can fry them, mash them, glaze them with honey et cetera and I will like them a little more, but I still fundamentally don’t like carrots. Similarly, I think most people don’t want new neighbours. You can build nicer houses’ and open shops nearby, but most people still fundamentally don’t want new neighbours. 

Tough luck, perhaps. We all need somewhere to live. Most people have little choice when it comes to the nature of the square feet around them, never mind the miles. Besides, most of our families were new neighbours once — just as all of our homes replaced something that might have been more beautiful. (As someone observed to me this month, if you live on “Orchard Road” or “Meadow Lane”, you can hardly deny that people have to make tough choices when it comes to balancing urban and natural environments.)

Preserving what is good around you isn’t unhealthy

We have to empathise with mild misanthropy. Being around a lot of cars absolutely sucks, and increasing densification makes it even less than usually avoidable as long as British public transport remains miserably expensive and unreliable. Having a bunch of strangers move in down the road is understandably stress-inducing when the cops have all but given up investigating non-violent offences — especially given violent offences have been increasing. As Ed West writes on his excellent Substack, “It makes complete sense for people to oppose housing projects which might lead to disorder and a spiral of secondary migration.” Expanding neighbourhoods would demand renewed focus on their security. As much as NIMBYism has played a role in the decline of British civil life, one can appreciate the seclusive impulse.

Besides, YIMBYs don’t help themselves. They are disproportionately liable to be radically pro-immigration — and I do not mean even mean pro-immigration in the “we could really use more nurses around here” sense but in the “hey, why even have borders” sense. Granted, there is some ideological continuity here. One can see how “it’s bad to stop people living in a neighbourhood” and “it’s bad to stop people living in a country” go together. That counts against YIMBYism. Such a combination of premises validates NIMBY defensiveness about the nature of community, whilst also ensuring that it be impossible for supply to edge ahead of demand without the worst forms of sweeping densification being summoned into existence. It is true that Britain has more land than we tend to think. That does not mean that this will always be the case.

NIMBYism is often selfish and short-sighted in our current material circumstances. That doesn’t mean the instinct towards preserving what is good around you is unhealthy in itself. Indeed, a little more of it in other spheres of society might have saved us from avoidable dysfunction. Two cheers for YIMBYs, then, but one for NIMBYs as well.

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