Like you, I can be a bit of a NIMBY. I live next to the Hammersmith Flyover and if they wanted to build that carbuncular monstrosity today, I would object strongly – no doubt on environmental grounds which have nothing to do with self-interest, of course.
If instead they wanted to build more housing and block the view from my window (and if my view wasn’t of the Hammersmith Flyover) the NIMBY in me might object that local schools and hospitals wouldn’t be able to cope with the increase in people. This would be a good enough argument, but also just a bit too conveniently self-serving.
When it comes to housing, one common NIMBY objection is that there isn’t enough space for it, locally or nationally. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment conducted a few years ago showed that only 6.8% of UK land is classified as urban (of which 78.6% is gardens, parks and lakes etc). And some places are fuller than others. In Hammersmith and Fulham, 10,897 people squeeze into each square kilometre. On the other hand, in lonely Rutland where I grew up, the population density is a mere 98. There appears to be room to build. But the fact that there are so few people in Rutland is in itself an argument against building more houses: the tranquillity needs protecting. So some places are too crowded to build, and others are too empty to build. Neat, eh?
Together with the lack (or glut) of space, it is not uncommon to hear that Britain has too many people. The latest UK population estimate from the ONS (mid-2013) is 64.1 million, 5 million higher than in 2001. The biggest share of this growth is immigration. Net migration for the year ending September 2014 was 298,000 (just a smidgen over the Government’s target of 100,000), while the number of births exceeded the number of deaths by 202,345. The public don’t trust politicians to talk honestly about immigration anymore, one reason for the rise of UKIP. Better to reduce immigration, the argument goes, than overstretch public services.
Of course the number of houses needed depends not on the number of people but the number of households. The ONS reports that there were 26.4 million households in the UK in 2013. This is 2.5 million more households than 2003 – suggesting we needed 250,000 new homes a year over that decade to keep up with demand.
We fell well short of that, so where did all the extra households go? The fastest growing household type was households containing two or more families, increasing by 39% from 206,000 households in 2003 to 286,000 households in 2013, so clearly some families are living together. On the whole, though, the average number of people in a household has stayed between 2.36 and 2.38 since 2000. Where have all the people gone? Some, tragically, are on the streets. Others are presumably filling previously empty stock. At some point there really will be a housing crisis but for most people this seems like just more hyperbole from politicians.
The case for building, meanwhile, is left to those self-same politicians and big business – not the most loved advocates in the world. In 2007, Gordon Brown announced a target of building 240,000 homes a year. Yet another target missed.
And that is the bigger point here. Perhaps in the past we had enough imagination and generosity of spirit to pull together to get things done. But now we simply don’t trust our politicians or big businesses to act in our interests, even when they are doing so. We don’t believe government statistics on immigration or housing or think that targets will be met.
NIMBYs are the symptom, not the cause of this malaise and to some extent we are all NIMBYs now.