The worst vested interest?

In February 2019 the Secretary to the UK Treasury, Liz Truss MP, one of the contenders to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister, described communities objecting to housebuilding as ‘the worst vested interest we’ve got’. Communities resisting development, she said were the main obstacle to the on-going project to liberalise and deregulate land use planning. 

The portrayal of community engagement and democratic participation in planning as an ‘obstruction’ or ‘delay’ is a common theme for a global liberal project that regards planning as an enemy of enterprise. Development rights were nationalised in the UK in 1947 and the planning system remains the last bulwark against free market forces and is therefore constantly under assault.  

What was unusual in this speech, was that Liz Truss, MP, presented communities who oppose the private speculative house building industry as the most committed supporters of planning, and of the nationalisation of development rights.

The portrayal of communities resisting development as pro-planning runs contrary to forty years of NIMBY folklore which has portrayed them as selfish and irrational in contrast to the rationality of planning and development.

In its first appearance in published research, the acronym NIMBY signalled the irrationality of objectors who acknowledged the need for development but opposed its location in their back yard. The medicalisation of community opposition into a NIMBY syndrome followed, suggesting that opposition to development was a pathological response to change.

The confabulation of research is evident in North America where the NIMBY literature quickly merged with the studies of the exclusionary effects of zoning in US suburbs, in which homeowner associations were identified as culpable in the promotion of racial segregation. The literature found a receptive hearing in the Australian suburbs where it was used to frame opposition to densification as a barrier to affordable housing development. The same tropes coloured an origins tale of UK planning where affluent rural homeowners were depicted as inequitably restricting urban housing need.

The focus of the NIMBY literature was on the hidden motives behind objections to development. The assumption was that public concerns over the environmental costs and negative impact of development could be discounted on the grounds that they disguised private selfish interests.

In financialised housing markets, interest in maintaining the value of the private home is not peculiar to individual home owners and is encouraged in policy discourse as rational action. The initial investment of homeowners comes under threat from new rounds of investment intended to capture the uplift in value created by home-makers. The possession of a material interest in an issue such as new housebuilding does not invalidate the claim to participate in planning decisions, nor does it preclude the commitment to what might be described as more principled objections, for instance on environmental grounds. Material attachments are the stuff of democracy. People participate in the democratic process because they are adversely affected by issues and care about the outcome. Again, it is worth noting that the NIMBY epithet is only applied to homeowners who are invested in the use value as well as the exchange value of housing: in place as well as property. The NIMBY caricature is never applied to buy-to-rent landlords, or those letting their second homes on Air B&B whose capital is rootless and for whom property is an investment but not a home.  

The most bizarre aspect of the NIMBY literature is its presentation of single-family homeowners as the only promoters of private property rights in the planning system. The role of landowners and developers is signally absent in the NIMBY literature. Development is presented as a public good, while the public are portrayed as representing only private concerns.

My argument in this post is that Liz Truss is right! There are particularly strong connections between communities objecting to deregulated development and those promoting an effective planning system. I would go further to say that communities objecting to development are among the last remaining defenders of an interventionist planning system. 

These campaign groups can be more accurately described as pro-planning rather than anti-development. They understand that planning is not merely a system for licensing free market development. Planning is about public ownership of development rights and about capturing the value created by development for the good of the public as a whole, and not solely for private interests. 

Opposition to housing development points to the irrationality of contemporary planning for housing:

  • The fact that in some places most new homes are just converted from office blocks without the need for planning permission, with families housed on industrial estates, without play areas, or even pedestrian walkways
  • The fact that housing targets now bear no relation to housing need and that almost all new housing goes to feed a bottomless demand for investment rather than for a place to call home 
  • And that protected environments are being allocated for housing, not because more land is needed, but because house-builders are able to play the system to get access to the highest value land.

Against this background, communities resisting unregulated development champion democracy in planning. They argue not only that decisions on development should be debated and decided in the most democratic way, but that the outcome of those decisions, especially the value created, should be shared democratically, for the good of society.

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