Photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Why won’t YIMBYs talk about immigration?

The elephant in the rented room

The YIMBYs. You will have seen us, even if you didn’t know our name. Each generation of right-wing hack needs its corporate character. Think the battered tweed of a Young Fogey, or the yeah-I-did-coke-once-so-what? nonchalance of a Notting Hill hanger-on. Our equivalent is a collective wish to buy a home somewhere near Battersea, and an inability to do so because of Britain’s appalling housing market.

We love graphs showing Britain’s long-standing inability to build. With alarming regularity, we grace outlets bemoaning the Tories’ suicidal failure to help young home-owners. We look covetously at our Canadian counterparts — and now, perhaps, at Keir Starmer, since he has declared himself to be on the side of the “builders, not the blockers” and vowed to take on our NIMBY nemeses.

Highlighting that Britain has a housing crisis can only be a good thing. The average house costs around nine times average earnings — a level of unaffordability unseen since 1876. We build less than half the houses than we did in the 1960s; house prices have more than trebled in my lifetime. From the Conservatives? Warm words, but a retreat from planning reform and an end to crucial housing targets.

Moaning about housing is trendy — but moaning about immigration is déclassé

Yet there is one subject on which I have noticed my fellow YIMBYS tend to be conspicuously silent. They can wax eloquently about the need for the Town and Country Planning Act to be destroyed, but press Ctrl + F on many a piece, and you will struggle to find a mention of immigration. This is rather odd, in a week where net migration was reported as soaring to new record levels. It is not a question whether immigration contributes to high house prices, but a simple case of supply and demand. A House of Lords report suggested 15 years ago that migration increased housing costs. Michael Gove’s own department estimates that a 10 per cent increase in immigration from 1991 to 2016 boosted house prices by 21 per cent. Not enough homes + more people = higher prices.

The Centre for Policy Studies suggests an extra 616,000 homes a year will be needed to accommodate record new arrivals: twice the Government’s 300,000 annual housebuilding target, and much more than double the 252,540 new dwellings that were completed last year. One would thus expect bringing migration down to be a core concern of my fellow YIMBYS. Instead, there is only silence. Why?

One reason is economic: immigration is not the cause of our housing crisis but exacerbates it. If our planning system was not so dysfunctional — damn you, Green Belt! — immigration could be absorbed more easily. Kristian Niemietz of the Institute for Economic Affairs has pointed towards Houston as a city where high rates of population growth and flexible planning rules means no affordability issue.

Even so: if YIMBYs want to do anything more than moan about their inability to buy a house in London, they might want to notice that immigration is the major source of population growth — and thus housing demand — in our capital. YIMBYs are millennial, however, and economically and socially liberal. Moaning about housing is trendy — but moaning about immigration is déclassé.

With a peer group of fellow graduates who are pro-immigration, anti-Brexit and likely to think Nigel Farage is a rung or two below the Antichrist, it makes no social sense for YIMBYs to start harping on about foreigners and house prices. Sticking one’s head above the parapet — or out of your box room in Clapham — is to court social ostracism. So the veil of silence on immigration is perpetuated.

Yet saying that YIMBYs fail to mention immigration only due to peer pressure ignores that many are ideologically pro-immigration themselves. One might call this the ASI tendency: the belief that open borders are necessary for a free market in labour. This would make more sense if we weren’t trying to match a neoliberal immigration system with a socialist planning one. Supply cannot meet demand.

I suspect there is more to the YIMBY hush on immigration than ideology or a desire not to get disinvited from parties, though. Mentioning immigration brings into the housing debate the question of demand. So far, YIMBY discourse has focused overwhelmingly on the need to increase supply and the inequities of our planning system. Complaining about Help to Buy is welcome, but a sideshow.

In terms of pushing policy, they are right to do so. Neither Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss showed enthusiasm for repealing the Town and Country Planning Act when I asked them, but a future Tory leader might be sympathetic to my colleague Henry Hill’s Metropolitan Planning Bill to streamline London’s planning regulations. Whilst this myopia is useful in campaigning, it is not in understanding the problem.

The British have a particular attachment to the idea of owning their own homes. 86 per cent of the population would prefer to be owner-occupiers compared to renting. By contrast, Germany has one of the lowest homeownership rates amongst OECD countries. Few under the age of 40 do not rent. This lack of demand, combined with high rates of housebuilding, means house prices are low and stable.

Again, a lack of housebuilding plays a crucial role — but reduced demand cannot be ignored. Opposition to housebuilding drives YIMBY anger. Every time an MP tweets about having blocked another development on a car park, scrubland or for the sake of a crumbling building in their constituency, one does not have to wait long until they face a justified wall of YIMBY criticism. This is a mistake.

Ever-greater density might not provide the quality of life that existing residents want

Their rage at MPs who say one thing and do another is understandable. Too often YIMBYS slip into assuming, however, that because their own reasons for supporting housebuilding are economic, the same is true for their opponents. Carpeting London and the South-East with more homes would lower prices. Yet this would enable more migrants to move in — and see existing residents moving out. Ever-greater density and a rapid change in the make-up of an area might not provide the quality of life that existing residents want — and it is hardly nice for those migrants moving in. In seeking to win mass support for more housebuilding, YIMBYs must understand their opponents’ concerns, not dismiss them. Voters want lower immigration more than they want lower house prices.

Any realistic housebuilding agenda must therefore be couched in NIMBY-friendly language. A “Green Belt Protection Act” to liberalise building on scrubland whilst carving out green spaces. A desire to build beautifully, rather than carpet Middlesex in tower blocks if it just gets prices down a little bit quicker. An acknowledgment of the role played by immigration in this crisis, and the need to cut it.

Rishi Sunak’s announcement that foreign students, except those doing postgraduate research, would be barred from bringing family members to the UK — which could reduce net migration by 150,000 a year — was much more important for the cause of YIMBYS everywhere than any warm words from Starmer. It could see the largest ever fall in legal migration numbers — but they are still too high.

Wedded to the planning reform his predecessors botched, it paves the way towards a house-building policy on which YIMBY commentators and NIMBY home-owners can finally agree.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover