A cheer for honest nimbyism

'And goodbye to one of our lovely Bumblebee health-food shops in north London, finally defeated by another greedy developer who wants to turn it into flats.’

What I appreciate about this statement (by Michele Hanson in The Guardian) is its honesty. Why can’t all nimbys talk as candidly? Why pretend the opposition to residential development is about saving nature and protecting wildlife, when it is really just another example of what Martin Durkin refers to as ‘posh anti-capitalism’?

Since the planning reform debate kicked off last summer, the nimby propaganda machine has been brimming with misinformation and horror stories. England is about to be transformed into a big Los Angeles, we are told. How so? Even in the South East, the UK’s most densely populated region outside London, a mere 15% of the total surface area is developed at all. (Yes, that includes Brighton and Oxford.) We’ve heard invocations about the preciousness of the Green Belt, when the coalition’s draft made it abundantly clear that the Green Belts were not affected at all (unfortunately), just like Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks. Over 80% of all planning applications are already approved, the nimbys stress. So? In North Korea, most applications for foreign travel permits are (presumably) approved, too. If people know they will never receive a permit anyway, they won’t bother to apply, unless they fall into one of the few exceptional categories (that, at least, was the way it worked in the former GDR).

What matters is how many new dwellings are being completed, and on that count, the UK has been lagging behind most comparable countries (comparable in income levels and population density) for decades.

Dwellings completed per 10,000 inhabitants

 

This is what makes the above statements so admirable. No fake statistics, no Tolkien-style mysticism, no misrepresentations – just a plain and honest nimbyist message: Keep out. Stay away from my cosy neighbourhood, where Guardian readers bump into each other in fancy health food stores, to chat about how neo-liberalism hurts the poor. Can’t afford a decent flat? Don’t worry, we’ll write an article about it, denouncing Housing Benefit cuts and the Right To Buy legislation. We’ll pity you – but from a safe distance.  

Now here’s an honest position. Take a leaf out of that book, CPRE, National Trust and all the rest of the gang.

To be fair to the author, she was not criticising neo-liberalism: indeed, she criticised the socialist device of compulsory purchase (though it would not be surprising if you were able to find other information that would allow you to write a blog post on political inconsistency - against compulsory purchase but in favour of penal taxation, for example). What is interesting, though, is the assumption that the developer is greedy and the owner/tenant of the health food shop is not. On what grounds is that assumption made? How would the article be written if the situation were the other way round - houses inhabitated by young renters knocked down so that a health food shop for the greedy middle class could be built? Perhaps the developer is an insurance company struggling to keep up bonus payments on endowment policies so that people can repay their mortgages - in other words, somebody just diligently going about their job having bought a building from somebody who wishes to sell it. I assume the health food shop is a tenant and not an owner - otherwise it is the owner of the shop that is the greedy one for selling out. But, if you rent a shop you get tenants' rights and if you own one you get owners' rights. I am sure the author would not like any tenants she may have in her house to suddenly obtain the rights to live their forever.

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