11 April 2013

Nimbyism? That’s not even the half of it.

Pity the poor Nimbys. Not only has the government’s horrible new planning regime come into force, but last week we heard the pro-HS2 lobbyists describing them as ‘posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs’. Even Isabel blames them for wanting to preserve the idyllic views from their breakfast room window. Being a nimby is so last century.

Alas, calling the naysayers nimbys simply glosses over one of the biggest problems facing our society, namely how government deals with the built environment. This has little to do with preserving greenfields, areas of outstanding natural beauty, Jerusalem – or indeed nimbyism. It is simply that building houses in the countryside inherently designs significant expense into people’s lives. Little consideration is being given to how people are meant to travel to work, with developments usually far away from the local railway station, and money available for local infrastructure from Section 106 levies woefully inadequate.

So the lovely garden that the nice Nick Boles wants families to believe is their right has a nasty price tag attached ever so discreetly: the cost of a season ticket on our state subsidised railways and running two cars on our congested roads, with the cumulative loss of more than a working day a week in the commuting grind rubbing salt into the wound. We’re placing ridiculous and entirely avoidable stress on families, and commuting is penalising people for poorly designed cities.

The good news is that we already have lots of houses fit for families; the bad news is that they’ve mostly been subdivided into flats, a perfectly rational market response to the changing shape of British society. Of course we haven’t built enough houses, and yes, immigration has seen demand soar. But Britons are also leading different sorts of lives from a few decades ago: we marry later, and are more likely to divorce, meaning that fewer people are interested in the old concept of a ‘family home’. We’ve failed to build accommodation in line with the demands of 21st Century life, and the result is soaring rates of flatsharing in poorly converted apartments. Incidentally most young professionals must look at the protests over the bedroom tax with disbelief – in the private rented sector spare rooms get filled very quickly, and sharing your home is common if you’re young and saving for a mortgage deposit.

Frustratingly house building companies – almost uniquely – deliver products that the market doesn’t want. Unlike cars, cameras and computers where ‘new’ is aspirational, the building industry is churning out a product that only a quarter of home buyers would actively consider, a damning indictment that you’d think would merit a stiffer response than the Government merely ‘telling them to think a bit about it’. RIBA has already pointed out how bad regulations are for new homes, with people having to store food in their cars as kitchens haven’t been properly designed. Tragically the new planning regime will merely compound these failings, with swathes of new houses financed by state credit, built in the wrong place and for the wrong target market, and the opposition brushed off as heartless to the challenge of the ‘yet-to-haves’.

First published by Coffee House on April 11th, 2013