IIf there’s one word in English I’d like to get rid of, it’s nimby. The acronym, which means “not in my backyard,” is often used by promoters and politicians to poke fun at local protesters who oppose building houses. The “Nimbys”, they claim, are selfish, 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 turn reality upside down: developers are not champions of the people, and those who oppose them are certainly not selfish.
The autopsy of the Chesham and Amersham elections, in which many voters, angered by environmentally destructive local projects, voted for the Liberal Democrats, brought to light accusations of Nimbyism. The Daily Telegraph declared victory “a win for nimbys“And he added that” there was no reason to give up planning reform, “reforms that, needless to say, appear to be designed to confer the greatest benefit on conservative donor homebuilders. Even sympathetic commentators couldn’t resist the cliché: “The voters may be dumb,” said Polly Toynbee, “but that doesn’t make them wrong on this.”
The problem with the term nimby isn’t just that it’s lazy. It is more serious than that. The misuse of the word allows the myths of the developers to go unchallenged. They spin a narrative that the planning system, manipulated by obstructive nimbys, prevents much-needed houses from being built by the less affluent. It’s a narrative shared by the Johnson government, whom these super-wealthy developers donated £ 11m in his first year in office.
But the narrative is, of course, nonsense. The housing crisis is not one of capacity but one of affordability. Outside of urban areas, the vast majority of homes being built These are four- to five-bedroom executive-style homes on brand-new land – completely out of reach for first-time buyers or those on council waiting lists.
Such houses, the wrong houses in the wrong places, will not drive down prices. Especially when other government policies, like helping to buy and stamp vacations, inflate them. It is also not correct that the locals have been successfully blocking planning consent. The government says that we must build 1 million new houses, but a million houses already have a building permit, but they are still not built. The real villains are property developers and estate agents, who increasingly negotiate planning permits and then sell the land to developers, who control their authorization for construction. It is not nimbys but profitability that determines when and where construction takes place.
Dismissing anyone who opposes this as a fool allows developers to present themselves as people with high morale. Nimbys are anti-progress refuseniks, they say, while developers are good for the economy, bringing improved infrastructure and even environmental benefits. However, anyone who has been involved in a local campaign will tell you how rarely developers contribute to local infrastructure and how often completed developments may differ from original plans. The affordable housing share is invariably the first casualty, renegotiated downward as soon as planning permission is obtained.
In terms of biodiversity benefits, the country is plagued by housing developments with failed gestures toward habitat creation: dry ponds and dead saplings in plastic tubes. In a campaign in which I am involved to save york gardens at Wandsworth, the developer plans initially preserved a magnificent protected mature black poplar. But once local respondents 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 was to cut down the tree.
My participation in this campaign is symptomatic of what really motivates us so-called nimbys. Although York Gardens is in my neighborhood, it is not in my immediate backyard. His fate does not affect me directly. But I am passionately concerned that mature trees in established parks should be worked, not destroyed by development companies. I also care when biodiversity is sacrificed for luxury developments. I feel the same when I hear about other environmental threats, be it urban parks like South East London. Peckham green, in which the Southwark council wants to build, areas of ancient forest destroyed by HS2’s carnage, or farmland in Thanet in Kent, where the larks nest, threatened by several massive developments around Birchington, Westgate-on-Sea and Garlinge. What matters to me is not my backyard, but the nature that belongs to all of us.
It is the same for the thousands of people campaigning to save the countryside against the environmental destruction unleashed by this government’s build, build, build agenda. The newly formed Community Planning Alliance, created to coordinate grassroots campaigns, has produced a map in which more than 460 environmental campaigns have already been registered. Along with a staggering number of housing developments, there is a wide variety of campaigns, including Save boiling wells in Kingston, southwest London, an urban campaign to save local filter beds as a nature and wildlife asset; Say no to the Sunnica in Suffolk, protesting a massive industrial-scale solar plant; Y Stop the Wensum link, a campaign in Norfolk to protect important wildlife areas and a rare creek of road construction chalk.
These campaigns basically deal with the broader 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, support wildlife, and help combat climate change. Many of these sites are worryingly vulnerable. They have no formal protection, there is often no data on wildlife there, and developers often consider them vacant lots. Legislation on wildlife and environmental protection is notably weak when faced with what one activist called “greed-motivated ecocide.” It’s a perception shared by the parliamentary environmental audit committee, which last week reported that the government’s ecological policies were “useless” in addressing the “catastrophic” loss of wildlife.
Nimby can be used as a pejorative and convenient term to demean the importance of wildlife protection while obscuring the arguments about who really benefits from developments and which people lose out. We may not have to abolish the term entirely, but rather reuse it. Nimby should no longer represent “not in my backyard” but “nature in my backyard.” Because, in my opinion, it is certainly not selfish to worry about future biodiversity stewardship.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism