Daily Left News

Christopher Worrall is a housing columnist for LFF. He is on the Executive Committee of the Labour Housing Group, Co-Host of the Priced Out Podcast, and Chair of the Local Government and Housing Member Policy Group of the Fabian Society. 

Recent data revealed by City AM has found Conservative-led London councils are some of the worst for approving major development schemes across the country. It comes after Susan Hall’s announced bizarre housing policy proposals in her bid for London Mayor. She claimed in her five point plan that “Sadiq is not building enough homes to meet demand”. This has led to a manifesto pledge to “stop Sadiq Khan’s inappropriate tower blocks”. Yet according to research by Stack Data Strategy shows people living in Labour’s most winnable seats, such as Harrow, are indeed pro-development. These battle grounds will feature heavily in the war on NIMBYism against the likes of Susan Hall and the Green Party, both in London in the upcoming Mayoral, as well as across the country at the next general election.

Hall’s anti-housing rhetoric cuts across the evidence stacked against Conservative-led Harrow Council, who has a dire record on housing approvals of big schemes since taking power. Harrow’s NIMBY planning committee is the worst of all London boroughs, only approving a pitiful 38 per cent of all major planning submissions. Not the record a potential Mayoral candidate can stand on to build trust in alleviating London’s housing crisis.

Harrow is now a Tory NIMBY paradise following winning the battle locally to block “tower blocks in the suburbs”. Harrow Conservatives have taken no time in destroying housing plans that had been many years in the making. For example, next to Harrow and Wealdstone station, on the former Harrow Civic Centre site, Conservatives proverbially torpedoed housing numbers on the site through redesigning a scheme with much lower density.

The business plan for the regeneration, strategically approached through a joint venture with Wates, was recently approved by the Tory-led council, in turn providing much fewer homes than originally planned.  The result will be less affordable housing, shorter buildings, and more people left struggling in temporary accommodation.

As a result, the Tories plan for the site now fails to meet the council’s own affordable housing requirements. The schemes, Byron Quarter and Poets Corner, provide 27 per cent and 15 per cent affordable housing respectively. This is below Harrow’s own policy of 40 per cent. While planning permission is yet to be granted, it is in no doubt in my mind that the Conservative council’s decision to reduce density has negatively impacted viability for affordable housing. Thus, it comes as no surprise the Tories have come cap in hand for more grant funding. A cost to the taxpayer that could have otherwise been avoided.

Remember, these sites are predominantly council-owned land. But rabid Conservative-led NIMBYism is destroying opportunities for locals to live and work in the area they grew up in plain sight. The brownfield site is adjacent to a major railway station with fast trains into central London in a little as 15 minutes. Yet another example of Conservative councils acting in a malign way that would even make Michael Gove blush, following taking aim at NIMBY councils blocking brownfield development.

It is not often councils flagrantly disregard approving major developments. As it allows larger numbers with limited controversy. What this does show is that NIMBY councils in the suburbs are contributing immensely to London’s housing crisis. Another one of the worst performers is Croydon council, which is led by a Tory Executive Mayor. In a strange celebration of triumph, Chris Philp MP for Croydon South, set out his elation on X, formerly known as Twitter, for the rejection of a single family home near Purley into flats. A sensible gentle density proposal less than 4 minutes to the local train station in Riddlesdown. Under the Conservatives major development applications have dropped to a 50 per cent approval rate. The second worst in London. Conservative-led Havering comes closely behind. NIMBYism is rife in the Conservative party. And these statistics prove it.

The overarching theme here is the complete capitulation of the Conservatives to NIMBYism. On the other hand, some of the best performers were Barking and Dagenham. Who have performed well under the entrepreneurial leadership of Darren Rodwell. Barking struck a whopping 100 per cent of major developments approved. Brent and Newham achieved a commendable 97 per cent, with Cllr Shama Tatler being a key driving force behind Brent’s efforts to tackle its housing crisis. Greenwich achieved 96 per cent, with Leader Anthony Okereke who recently signing the London Charter to End Rough Sleeping. Both of whom demonstrate how serious proactive sensible Labour-led councils are at addressing London’s housing shortage.

The Stack Data Strategy research also undertook polling on support for development, finding that higher house prices correspond with lower support for housing. They found that the older generation prioritise building affordable housing the least. Susan Hall epitomizes the generational war unfolding in London and other areas of high housing need. Pitching the struggling young, whose future economic security has been robbed, versus the comfortable well-housed older generation.

Some on the soft left have begun to argue the YIMBY vs NIMBY argument is “reductive” and “not helpful”. Meanwhile others who follow the evidence will argue we have only begun to acknowledge the full extent of the causes of high prices and rents down to the campaigning of the burgeoning Yes In My Back Yard movement. The evidence-backed movement has made great strides in recent years. Building a cross-party platform that many find hard to argue against. We only have to look at leading YIMBY activists from around the world to see their effectiveness in developing more pro-housing policy. For example, in New Zealand the movement has pushed for planning policies that improve the rate of housing supply, as eloquently described by Stu Donovan. The pre-eminent spatial, urban, and transport economist who specializes in land use policy.

Ultimately. those who argue that improving supply will have limited effect are wrong. Donovan recently highlighted evidence from Auckland, where the price-to-income ratio recently fell below the country’s average, following YIMBY policy proposals being implemented. He showcased research by Auckland’s Chief Economist Unit that reviewed zoning reform and what we can learn from its impact.

The emerging body of research found that land use policy decisions can have powerful demand and supply side effects on land and housing markets. Notably, where planning policy is regulated more efficiently, housing supply becomes more flexible in its response to demand. This facilitates an environment of lower housing prices than otherwise would be the case. The benefits are wide reaching. Benefiting current and future residents’ wellbeing, while enhancing the competitiveness, in this case Auckland, both nationally and globally.

Yet in England some housing commentators refuse to take a side on the war on NIMBYs, one such individual is Peter Apps. In explaining why he is “not a NIMBY or a YIMBY” in a blog post, he believes the argument is too “simple”. Taking umbrage at the “sneering sarcasm” of YIMBYs campaigning online, calling out “attacks on local councillors”. Councillors who one can only presume have been blocking desperately needed housing.

Peter Apps is a prime example of a left NIMBY, refusing to acknowledge the science demonstrating the causes of our housing shortage. But has no issues with sitting on panels organized by the Corbyn Project, alongside Corbyn and left NIMBY Pamela Fitzpatrick.

In his blog, Apps describes this as a generational fight on the right, rather than the left of British politics. Stating that these “two tribes probably sit on opposite sides of many exceedingly Christmas dinner tables in the Home Counties, which may explain some of the vitriol”. Before going onto say “neither group has particularly good solutions to the UK’s housing crisis”.

This is demonstrably untrue. Coalition building to improve housing outcomes can be demonstrated by the work of PricedOut, which has been instrumental in bringing a range of views behind policy proposals that can achieve better housing outcomes. While this irks some on the hard left, who denounce the role of market forces, the broad church of the YIMBY movement accepts the evidence that supply constraints explain most of the causes of house price increases.

Pete Apps does acknowledge that “planning law and local opposition is a major block”. But contradicts himself through resorting to old Marxist tropes, which cite “land speculators” and unmeasurable Marxist rhetoric claiming developers place “profit above supply”. A simplistic binary argument against supply-side reform. Alongside a complete lack of understanding of how land and housing markets work. He also claims removing planning restrictions will “simply put more land into developers’ pipelines”, who will “keep maintaining their profit margins” while “we will stay priced out”. Ignoring the large body of evidence that debunks the myth of land banking.

In this war against NIMBYs, if you are claiming to be above the debate, then you are siding with the NIMBYs. Simply acknowledging their existence, while offering no meaningful way to deal with the injustices created through the selective bias inherent in UK planning, merely attempts to add justification to their arguments. Undermining the narrative around the need to increase the supply of housing, or playing down their effectiveness on the issues of costs, puts you in the camp of the oppressors i.e. the NIMBYs.

Toby Lloyd also parrots these claims that developers somehow have the god given “ability to withhold supply”, while ignoring the role the restrictiveness the planning system has on market volatility. Another strawman manifestation of the evil developer trope. Yes developers slowdown output in a downturn. As does every other sector who face demand-side shocks. I am yet to see any industry continue to produce stock at a loss. An example of this is in London, where knee-jerk updates to building regulations have hamstrung 38,000 homes due to second staircases guidance being delayed. Simplistic binary arguments that it is all the developers fault fall flat on their face when scratching beneath the surface.

The war on NIMBYism is between those who back the builders, not the blockers. The adversaries rail against those who see their view, a height of a building, or the nefarious profit motive of the developer, as a greater issue than those simply providing homes for those without a suitable place to live. The vibes-based ideological arguments against developers reduce the debate to semantic and nuanced takes on strawman bad faith actors. These ideological arguments, devoid of any meaningful statistical evidence, place them on one side and one side only. The NIMBYs.   

Should you ask any “left” housing commentator if they have read Alan Bertaud, former principal planner for the World Bank, most will say no. Bertaud is one of the leading urbanist scholars, and planning expert, who has highlighted the knowledge gaps of well-meaning urban planners and urban economists. His book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, brings economic logic and quantitative analysis to guide urban planning decision-making. All informed through his 55-year career as a global urban planner. His experience and expertise should not be ignored.

Bertaud argues, from his experience with urban planners, that many within the profession are oblivious to the economic effects of their decisions. Often coming with unintended consequences of their actions. Overall, the goal of the book is to bring economics in as an important policy tool to the urban planning profession. Simply put, to bring economists closer to the practical challenges of planning. The book ultimately is one of economic analysis, grounded in empirical observations, of the unavoidable effects of supply and demand. He reflects on his time working in command-and-control economies that embraced markets for the allocation of resources. An economy that many of the left NIMBYs would advocate.

In the UK we have some in the field that argue “planning by numbers” is not the answer. A sleight at those who seek to bring economics into the debate. Planning by numbers, in my opinion, involves recognizing the rents people have to pay, and the house prices they cannot afford. In addition, to land values, which currently feature nowhere in many urban planners proposals. Instead we are to gamble it all on black. The magic wand that is strategic planning. Recent calls for Strategic Planning Advisory Boards (SPABs) have been made in Labour policy announcements. This is despite there currently being “no exact model” that has proven for it to work.

Cross-boundary strategic planning has been put as one of the pillars within the blitz of planning reform Labour sets out to achieve. Labour has cleverly put out an industry comforting messaging around not undertaking wholesale reform. This comes following the Tories hatchet job attempt under Boris Johnson spooked the political and planning industry horses. Yet these plans were kiboshed by NIMBY backbenchers who rebelled against what was a more pro-housing approach, aimed at speeding up and simplifying the process.

Strategic planning has been a disastrous failure in the past, with the duty to cooperate being seen as a duty not to cooperate. Rather than a duty to agree. Words such as partnership and vision often fluffed into policy proposals are hard to disagree with in simplistic binary terms. But sadly, the nitty gritty of strategic planning seems to be lacking in substance. While cutting across both Conservative and Labour ideals on localism. Some argue it adds layers of bureaucracy that add dither and delay, while facing the exact same political opposition that building homes is stacked against. 

Despite the debates over policy detail, the Labour leadership’s rhetoric and economic soundness under the leadership of Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves is to be revered. Labour is a party on the cusp of government. Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has put planning reform at the very centre of Labour’s economic vision. And we can look at examples across the world where making such changes has resulted in huge benefits for society. As we seen in Auckland, New Zealand, along with the plethora of YIMBY winning streaks across many states in America.

Under Labour there will be a new chapter in Britain’s economic history. And under Sadiq Khan London will invariably benefit too. The likes of Susan Hall and NIMBY council’s, such as Harrow and Croydon, are what is holding our country back. Their actions and planning policies prevent those most vulnerable in society from accessing opportunity and building a life of their own. Often hiding behind thousands of objections at planning through consultations, which research from across the globe shows wields power to those unrepresentative of their local area.

But Labour has made great strides in grasping the nettle of the failed UK planning system, namely through accepting the evidence restrictive planning has on growth, which as Jeremy Clarkson has shown even effects rural areas. Ending the prevarication and political short-termism of those who argue against the evidence, such as left and Tory NIMBYs, can and will be achieved. Meanwhile, it must acknowledge claims the NIMBY vs. YIMBY debate is reductive – is in itself reductive. Simplistic binaries of strategic planning as a silver bullet, or strawmanning evil developers, won’t enable Labour to achieve the growth it seeks. Removing self-selection bias of voluntary consultation submissions captured by NIMBYs from the planning system will need to be front and centre of these reforms. This will cost Labour political capital early on if wants to meaningfully reform our failed planning system and get Britain building again. Political capital of which will be at its peak in the first 100 days of government.

Labour can win the war against the NIMBYs. And reap the spoils of war. In this case it will be the UK economy reaching its full potential, saving the dream of homeownership, and giving hope for all those set to benefit from ending the shortage of homes.

The post Rabid Conservative-led NIMBYism is destroying opportunities for locals appeared first on Left Foot Forward: Leading the UK’s progressive debate.


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