The NIMBY/YIMBY Debate on The Right | Jacob Groet
This article was originally published in the fourth edition of the Mallard magazine, ‘England, My England’. You can purchase a copy here.
Whether you know it or not, housing is becoming an increasingly salient topic of conversation in British politics on the right. The recent victory of the Liberal Democrats in the Chesham & Amersham byelection has brought this issue into sharp focus, both on the right and in the country as a whole. As political realignment sees Labour voters flock to the Conservatives in the North, and Conservative voters (supposedly) flock to the Liberal Democrats in the south, the preparations seem to be being made for an almighty pitched battle over the future of planning policy in the United Kingdom.
However, the Conservatives have a significant advantage in numbers – if they can stave off their more rebellious southern MPs. For all the clamour of the Liberals, if the government hold their nerve, I imagine the Liberals will not be able to mount a significant enough attack at the next general election. Far more intriguing than this, is the internal debate amongst right-wing thinkers/speakers/hacks on this very subject. For, as we now live in the Tory Party State, the internal conversations of those on the right have a far more significant impact than they once did.
The debate as it stands centres around two vague, over-used abbreviations: NIMBY and YIMBY. The former, more well known of the two, stands for ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (it should be garden, but that ruins the phonetic appeal). The latter, more contemporary version, stands for: Yes In My Back Yard.
‘NIMBYs’ is the pejorative term to define people- usually middle-class boomers- who actively seek to block development and building in their local area. The term derives from the often trotted-out argument: “We absolutely need more [housing/amenities/office space], but it just wouldn’t be right here.” ’YIMBYs’ are the retaliatory force to the NIMBYs. However, unlike NIMBYS, they tend to be far less grass-roots. They are made up mostly of people with a specific interest in housing and planning policy. They tend to label themselves as such, as they see their willingness to promote development a badge of honour, as opposed to a pejorative.
Although, it seems these days that you can be accused of NIMBYism even if you are opposing development somewhere else (i.e., not your backyard), and a YIMBY even if you are advocating development in Liverpool whilst living in London. So, whilst it is useful to understand these terms, it is important to note that debates about housing and building do not actually keep to the specific definitions of these terms. More frequently, they are used as badges to refer to those in favour of large-scale development (YIMBYs) and those opposed (NIMBYs)- references to who’s backyard it is are mostly irrelevant.
This debate has developed quite rapidly in the last 6-8 months, thanks to everybody’s favourite online dopamine dispenser: twitter dot com. Like monkeys at typewriters, if given enough time, anything and everything will eventually be written and published. So, it was only a matter of time before the growing popularity of ‘heritage, beauty, conservation’ on the right was challenged. Of those leading the charge, the most curious grouping refers to themselves as ‘right wing progressives.’ In short, they are those who see conservative thinking as far too reactionary, stagnant, and doomed to decline. However, this is not to say that they seek solutions to this stagnation from the left. Rather, they believe that an intrinsic part of national rebirth is a reinvigoration of the British economy that looks toward a better future: GDP isn’t a dirty term, post-liberalism is leftism by other means, and the UK should trade, build, and adopt the symbol of a lion on the world stage. In effect, it is an attempt to rebuild Britain’s former economic might whilst accepting that some things have moved on. In many ways it seeks to return to a Thatcherite style of government.
The key to understanding their policy of ‘build build build’ is their view of people and political demographics: home ownership leads people to the right. Saddling people- especially the young- with high rent costs on properties they will never own, combined with an economy which fails to secure them well paid jobs, taxes them too highly, and leaves them up to their neck in debt, is only going to push them into the arms of the left. Right wing progressives target the young as ambitious people who can be persuaded to the right if only under the correct conditions. Key to doing this is through homebuilding. After all, what does a lack of housing produce? High prices, low availability, and an increased reliance on large cities to house people- the culture of which is highly attuned to the hegemony of left-wing ideas.
In opposition there is home ownership: independence, aspiration, self-reliance. All traits that naturally lead people to the type of politics more likely to be eschewed from the right. Indeed, these are not new ideas- as mentioned previously, they are Thatcherite ideas. One of the main focuses and legacies of the Thatcher government was the promotion and proliferation of home ownership for precisely those reasons. However, there is a key difference. Thatcher promoted home ownership via Right to Buy- the right of those in council houses to buy their home from their local authority. As such, home ownership was won from housing stock which already existed.
These days, that stock is severely depleted, and is not of a scale large enough to satisfy the huge demands on the housing market we see now. For the right-wing progressives, the only way to promote home ownership is to build new housing. And who is standing in their way? A small, vocal minority of highly organised, comfortable middle-class boomers who like things as they are. To the right-wing progressive, they are the worst of the worst. They sit comfortably in houses they bought for very little money and deny others the right to have the same. After a life spent taking as much as they could from the state, they now actively hold back future prosperity, offering up incredibly woolly reasons:
“Development would change the character of the area;” “Development would alter school catchment areas;” “Development would overlook our gardens;” “Development would endanger this rare species of newt.” Now, these considerations themselves are surely things that should be contemplated in any fair-handed planning system. However, in this case of NIMBYs, it is clear that no matter the development, they will trot out whichever arguments work best to block its approval.
The right-wing progressives rightly spot these objections for what they are- convenient issues that mask and legitimise the NIMBYs’ true view: that nothing should be built near them whatsoever. As a reaction to the NIMBYs, right wing progressives dismiss almost all forms of objection to new building. In fact, many embrace the types of development that 2/3rds of the country say they would never buy: the ‘new build.’ For that 2/3rds, new build estates are poorly built, ersatz attempts at village living, their design leaving them looking more like pint-pot American suburbs. For the right-wing progressive, however, they are havens of the ‘deano’- young, emerging middle class professionals- who espouse many of right-leaning values listed earlier in this article. For some right-wing progressives, these types of buildings not only should be permitted, but encouraged.
When confronted with the right-wing progressives, I am always incredibly conflicted. I am most definitely of the ‘heritage, tradition, conservation’ school of thinking, but neither am I a NIMBY. Those who stubbornly refuse to allow any development near them are a blight, but then so too are the developments that are currently being proposed. I don’t like holding the ‘centrist’ position in anything- I value clearly defined policy. However, when it comes to this fence, I am afraid I find fault with both sides. Allow me to explain why.
When it comes to building and planning, I do not believe we live in a zero-sum game of beauty or development. We need more homes, yes- for all the strategic reasons the right-wing progressives mention. Home ownership must be a priority. However, I think in their eagerness to be as revolutionary as possible, and as a reaction to anything that smell even remotely NIMBY, right wing progressives end up promoting a vision of urban Britain that is, in reality, totally depressing- cities filled with cheaply constructed high rises and towns of endless Dr Seuss, Cat-In-The-Hat-style suburbs.
So, for the remainder of this article, I’d like to set out an alternative; a third position. The NIMBY/YIMBY synthesis if you will.
The central principle is this: fewer people will oppose building if what is built is beautiful, both in individual design and urban layout. This is not to say, naively, that if you build beautifully, you will eliminate all NIMBYs, as we know there is a dedicated hardcore that will always oppose any building whatsoever. Rather, we embrace ‘build build build’ on the proviso that effort is put into following urbanist principles: walkable streets, human-scale, gentle density, varied design with a clear set of design rules, and pleasant street furniture. In short, we opt for ‘Aesthetic YIMBYism’ that adopts all the best ideas of the Scrutonian/urbanist political movement whilst adopting a more ferocious attitude to the pace and scale of homebuilding that surely needs to occur.
Indeed, I think the main cause of concern for conservatives in general regarding building is that development spoils the areas it comes to or changes them beyond recognition. This is looking to the past, of course, but if the past was better than the present then I see no reason why this should be a problem. It is when people cling to an element of the past which is worse than the present, that problems arise. Entrenching aestheticism in the planning system circumvents this. It’s not like this is even an untested principle: the Victorians are responsible for most of the urban building we have today- they spent decades building, building, building. They built, and they built beautifully. The architectural work of the Victorians at once symbolises progress, power, and confidence at the same time as it demonstrates an acute care for detail, symmetry, classicism, and beauty.
This is the third way, and it is the way that I think all those on the right seeking to get more things built should go. Emulate the Victorians and their union of progress and beauty, and we’ll destroy those NIMBYs yet.