How the planning system lets homeowners overwhelm the broader public interest

Britain needs more housing, especially in the South East, yet the green belt still enjoys a great deal of protection from development. John Sturzaker (University of Liverpool) looks at the difficulty of establishing whether NIMBYism is motivated by self-interest or legitimate concerns – and the imbalance of power between people who need housing, and those who already own it.

mop end

Mop End is part of the South Bucks section of the green belt. Photo: Timon Newton-Syms via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

Rarely a day goes by in the UK without a headline bemoaning the housing crisis. The shortage of new affordable housing has resulted in a housing market that is not just “broken”, but “cruel”. While there are dissenting views on how much this can be blamed on a shortage of supply rather than demand from international capital and buy-to-let landlords, if we accept that it is in the public interest to build more houses, we need to better understand why this is not happening.

The Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, has been portrayed as blaming “babyboomers” for “blocking badly needed new developments” as he proposes the latest in an increasingly long stream of reforms to the planning system to deliver more houses. But Javid has also said that the existing protections of the green belt “will in no way change”. Protecting the green belt dramatically limits what local authorities – some with a severe shortage of housing – can do. It is largely down to enduring popular support for green belts, particularly amongst those who live in or near them.

Javid is just one of many voices who decry opposition to new housing, in the green belt or elsewhere, as NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. This acronym has now become the default way to describe any opposition to development that some perceive to be in the public interest. Is this fair? That partly depends on the extent to which opposition is motivated by self-interest, or whether other factors can help explain it.

Several years ago I was part of a study which explored why people had objected to housing developments in the villages where they lived. We found that while it was fair to ascribe some opposition to self-interest (NIMBYism), there were other equally important reasons, including legitimate criticisms of the developments themselves and resentment at a perceived lack of influence over decision-making. This resentment was a major reason for the abolition of the system of regional planning, which until 2011 guided housebuilding in England. The system was abandoned immediately after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power, on the basis that “Soviet tractor style top-down planning targets… built nothing but resentment”. It is certainly true that regional plans and the housing targets they contained were controversial in some places, particularly the South East, but as was noted at the time, abolishing them changed the balance of power in favour of NIMBYs by removing one external driver to deliver more housing.

In some ways, the reforms to the planning system that have been made since 2011 have been attempts to achieve higher rates of housebuilding by other means, including requiring local planning authorities to devise their own targets, based on “objectively assessed need”, and imposing penalties if they fail to meet them. The government has recently consulted on a standardised methodology for calculating objectively assessed need, the result of which would be significantly higher targets in places with high demand for housing, particularly the South East. If these proposals come into force, and based on previous experience with regional planning, it seems likely that there will be considerable opposition from communities who see increases in their housing targets. Furthermore, since the government is committed to maintaining the green belt, we may not be any closer to addressing the housing crisis.

But if opposition does derail attempts to build more housing, including on the green belt, might this not reflect legitimate concerns about development? This is another major problem with labelling opposition as NIMBYism. From one perspective, those objecting to development are simply exercising their democratic right to participate in the planning system. The problem, therefore, may lie not with those objecting to development that might affect them personally (most of us would react in a similar way), but with the planning system itself. This system allows the views of a vocal minority to outweigh the broader public interest – which, as noted above, is now broadly agreed to mean building more homes. Why is this not happening? How are NIMBYs managing to protect their back yards so successfully?

One perspective, which comes from the economics of public choice theory, is that this is a collective action problem, centred on the differing ability of anti- and pro-development groups to organise and engage in the planning system. From this perspective, those opposed to development have a number of advantages: they are usually motivated by a specific “threat” to their immediate physical environment; they typically live near to where the development is proposed so can have direct (electoral) influence over the politicians making a decision on whether it should go ahead; and research suggests they are more likely to be middle class with the stereotypical “sharp elbows” possessed by that group.

In contrast, those whose interests might be served by, say, building more houses on a green belt site may have little reason to support it because it may seem irrelevant to their own situation; they may well not live in the area, as they cannot currently afford to buy a house there; and they may be less well-equipped to engage with the complex and bureaucratic planning system. For these reasons, they are less able to engage in collective action to lobby for more housebuilding, in contrast to anti-development lobby groups.

Assessing the democratic implications of (not) building on parts of the green belt is, therefore, not straightforward – as I have commented on this blog before, shifting power from the regional to the neighbourhood level was justified on the grounds of being more democratic in the sense that people could have a more direct influence over development. Conversely, one could argue that a planning system which was better at delivering homes was more democratic, because it reflects the needs of the citizens of the UK. Politicians and planners have been wrestling with this issue since the planning system was created in 1947, and nothing in the latest round of rhetoric and policy reforms suggests that they are any closer to finding a solution.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

Dr John Sturzaker is a Senior Lecturer in Civic Design/Planning at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool. Twitter @johnsturzaker

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