Housing Britain: YIMBYS vs NIMBYS

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


When Conservative MP Theresa Villiers recently led 60 rebel Tory MPs to bulldoze the government into scrapping mandatory housing targets, she was dubbed ‘the patron saint of NIMBYism’. Notoriously, the UK planning system empowers those wishing to object to new homes and infrastructure – on grounds ranging from sensible to spurious. Removing targets acting as a big stick to force local councils to permit enough new homes in their areas is considered by some to give a green light to NIMBYs who – reflecting their ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude to development – delay or even stop much needed projects, thereby ‘spitting in the face of a generation’ as younger people find it harder than ever to own a home.

However, a new force has recently stepped into the fray. YIMBYs – or ‘yes-in-my-backyard’ – are fed up with Britain’s long-standing inability to build. Fuelled by angry millennials and inspired by counterparts around the world, including North America and Australia, new groups have emerged in cities such as London, Oxford and Cambridge. Backed by Keir Starmer, who pledges to take the side of ‘builders not the blockers’, YIMBYs vow to take on their NIMBY nemeses and head to planning meetings en masse to argue for more housing – often the type of dense, city infill projects or urban expansions that generate most opposition from NIMBYs.

While the battle lines seem clear, is this battle more complicated than it seems? After all, while derided NIMBYs can be small numbers of loud, local campaigners, or well-funded third-sector campaigns from the RSPB or National Trust, they often push at an open door of a system incentivising councillors or MPs of all parties to block developments. Meanwhile, the YIMBY cry of ‘build, build, build’ might appear to solve our problems, but given this seldom stretches to the infrastructure – schools and hospitals, never mind concert halls and parks, that make places work – can anyone blame NIMBYs for sceptical attitudes to development?

To complicate matters, demographic tensions mean the housing debate can often be framed as old, selfish homeowners blocking young people’s desperate housing needs. Meanwhile, increasing migration means housing can become embroiled in arguments about attitudes to refugees, with YIMBY campaigners accused of metropolitan disdain for communities’ concerns about overcrowded towns and fragmenting social cohesion caused by a careless demand for endless new builds.

Can we avoid this moral framing of the housing debate? Might the introduction of New Towns meet both sides’ aspirations? Do we need denser development, or should we bite the bullet and build on the green belt? And with value-for-money measures typically favouring development in the more prosperous and populous South East of England over the North, could YIMBYism merely entrench existing regional inequalities?

James Heartfield
lecturer and author

Molly Kingsley
co-founder, UsForThem; co-author, The Children’s Inquiry

Lord Moylan
Conservative peer

Shreya Nanda
economist; senior fellow, Social Market Foundation; adviser, London YIMBY

Charlie Winstanley
political advisor to the Mayor of Salford; co-author, GM Housing Strategy

Joel Cohen
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas