If there’s one word in the English language that I’d like to get rid of, it’s nimby. The acronym – for “not in my back yard” – is often used by developers and politicians to deride local protesters who stand up to housebuilding. “Nimbys”, they claim, are self-interested, live in nice houses, in nice places and want to deny these privileges to newcomers. In my opinion, the word is a spectacular example of how language can stand reality on its head: developers are not champions of the people and those who oppose them are certainly not selfish.
The postmortem of the Chesham and Amersham byelection, where many voters, upset at environmentally destructive local projects, voted for the Liberal Democrats, brought accusations of nimbyism out in force. The Daily Telegraph declared the win “a victory for nimbys“, adding that it was “no reason to give up on planning reform” – reforms which, needless to say, look set to confer most benefit on Tory-donor housebuilders. Even sympathetic commentators couldn’t resist the cliche: the “voters may possibly be nimbys”, said Polly Toynbee, “but that doesn’t make them wrong on this”.
The problem with the term nimby is not just that it’s lazy. It’s more serious than that. The misuse of the word allows developers’ myths to go unchallenged. They spin a narrative that the planning system – manipulated by obstructive nimbys – prevents much-needed homes for the less well-off from being built. It’s a narrative shared by Johnson’s government, to whom these super-rich developers donated GBP11m in his first year in office.
But the narrative is of course nonsense. The crisis in housing is not of capacity but of affordability. Outside urban areas, the vast majority of houses being built are four- to five-bedroom executive-style housing on greenfield sites: completely out of the reach of first-time buyers or those on council waiting lists.
Such houses, the wrong houses on the wrong sites, won’t bring prices down. Especially when other government policies, such as help to buy and stamp duty holidays, inflate them. Nor is it correct that locals have successfully been blocking planning consent. The government claims we must build 1m new homes – but a million houses already have planning permission, yet remain unbuilt. The real villains are the developers and land agents, who increasingly negotiate planning permission and then sell on the land to developers, who control its release for building. It’s not nimbys but profitability that determines when and where building happens.
Dismissing anyone who opposes this as a nimby allows developers to present themselves as holding the moral high ground. Nimbys are anti-progress refuseniks, they say, while developers are good for the economy, bringing improved infrastructure and even environmental gains. Yet anyone who has been involved in a local campaign will tell you how rarely developers contribute to local infrastructure, and how frequently finished developments can differ from original plans. The proportion of affordable housing is invariably the first casualty, renegotiated downwards as soon as planning permission is achieved.
As for biodiversity benefits, the country is littered with housing developments with failed gestures towards habitat creation – dried-up ponds and dead saplings in plastic tubes. In a campaign I am involved with to save York Gardens in Wandsworth, the developer’s plans initially retained a magnificent, protected mature black poplar tree. But once local consultees had dispersed, thinking their beloved tree was safe, developer Taylor Wimpey returned to the planning committee insisting that the route they now needed for their cables involved felling the tree.
My involvement in this campaign is symptomatic of what really motivates us so-called nimbys. Although York Gardens is in my borough, it’s not in my immediate backyard. Its fate does not affect me directly. But I care passionately that mature trees in established parks should be worked around, not destroyed by development companies. I also care when biodiversity is sacrificed for luxury developments. I feel the same when I hear of other environmental threats, whether it’s urban parks such as south-east London’s Peckham Green, which Southwark council wants to build on, areas of ancient woodland destroyed by HS2’s carnage, or farmland in Thanet in Kent where skylarks nest, threatened by several massive housing developments around Birchington, Westgate-on-Sea and Garlinge. What I care about is not my back yard, but the nature that belongs to all of us.
It’s the same for the thousands of people campaigning to save countryside against environmental destruction unleashed by this government’s build, build, build agenda. The newly formed Community Planning Alliance, set up to coordinate grassroots campaigns, has produced a map on which more than 460 environmental campaigns have already been registered. Along with a staggering number of housing developments, there’s a huge variety of campaigns, including Save Seething Wells in Kingston, south-west London, an urban campaign to save local filter beds as a nature and wildlife asset; Say No to Sunnica in Suffolk, protesting against a massive industrial-scale solar plant; and Stop the Wensum Link, a campaign in Norfolk to protect important wildlife areas and a rare chalk stream from road building.
Fundamentally, these campaigns are about the wider issue of biodiversity protection. What matters to each of them is the protection of everyday nature – those undesignated green spaces and natural resources that attract visitors, which support wildlife and help combat climate change. Many of these sites are worryingly vulnerable. They have no formal protection, there’s often no data on the wildlife there, and developers often regard them as vacant lots. Wildlife legislation and environmental protection is remarkably weak when confronted with what one campaigner called “greed-motivated ecocide”. It’s a perception shared by the parliamentary environmental audit committee, which last week reported that the government’s green policies were “toothless” in addressing the “catastrophic” loss of wildlife.
Nimby can be used as a convenient, pejorative term to downgrade the importance of wildlife protection while obscuring arguments about who actually benefits from developments and which people lose out. Perhaps we don’t have to abolish the term altogether, but rather repurpose it. Nimby should no longer stand for “not in my back yard” but “nature in my back yard”. Because in my opinion, it’s certainly not a selfish thing to worry about the guardianship of future biodiversity.
Ros Coward is Trustee of the Rainforest Foundation UK