Holiday reading has revealed fascinating differences (and similarities) between UK and US nimbyism. The two sources were:
- Research by UCLA revealing the true reasons why US nimbys dislike developers and development;
- The superb book, ‘Snob Zones’ by New York Times journalist Lisa Prevost. It describes the uglier side of localism in some of the quaint towns of New England.
This post looks as those sources and draws conclusions on the lessons and potential implications for the UK.
Opposition to development or opposition to developers? (UCLA, Feb 2018)
In a nutshell this research concludes that the key reason local residents don’t like development is because developers make a profit. And lurking beneath it says there is also a “resentment of new people who might be a different racial or income group”.
Other key points in the report were:
- In the US there is a long established negative cultural perception of developers as greedy or rapacious. Think; Its a Wonderful Life, or even Donald Trump. And more examples HERE ;
- In a controlled experiment, resident opposition to a development doubled when the group were told that the developers would be making a large profit;
- A vicious circle gets created whereby (a) development is unpopular, (b) zoning gets stricter, (c) development therefore gets riskier, (d) developers who are able to take on the risks make larger profits and (e) development becomes even more unpopular (see diagram, below);
- The cycle is exacerbated as successful developers in strict zoning areas need deep pockets and a confrontational mindset. That mindset engenders the obvious counterpoise from residents;
- The biggest financial beneficiaries of anti-development zoning are existing homeowners who are then able to behave as a highly effective cartel;
- Despite the findings of the survey-framed experiment, the research found that nimbys disguise the true underlying reasons for opposition, “even from themselves”;
- Whilst concerns over fairness may drive the anti-development mindset the researchers were not clear who actually benefits (or doesn’t benefit) from the supposed fairness created by preventing new homes.
The paper notes that, surprisingly, in a country where nearly everyone lives in a home built by a developer, the instinct in many areas is to punish the producer of that home.
Snob Zones, Lisa Prevost
This searing insight looks at a number of New England towns, and argues that, in some areas, the American dream of of “opportunity for all” appears to have been replaced by, “every town for itself”.
Prevost argues that localism is leading to shortfalls of housing, ageing towns, rising prices and hugely increased disparities and inequalities.
The book describes in captivating detail:
- The upmarket Connecticut town where the zoning commission has ensured there isn’t a single apartment building or condominium in the town;
- The town in Massachusetts where a small development of 4 ‘cottage apartments’, proposed in full accordance with the State policy to support lower income households, was rebuffed and rebuffed until the developer went bust;
- The town in Maine where an affordable housing scheme by a local non-profit organisation was stalled by the zoning commission until the State funding ran out. Luckily the scheme got built and was actually accepted as successful by residents;
- And another town in Connecticut where legal action by the State was necessary to overcome exclusionary practices by local officials.
Prevost concludes that the baby boomer generation is driving the opposition to development. Perhaps even without realising that encouraging more McMansions, whilst opposing more smaller homes, is increasingly out of step with younger aspirations. And therefore more likely to devalue their house.
Lessons for the UK
The first lesson is the pride we must take in the UK planning system. Generally transparent, accountable, rooted in a meaningful democratic process and free from malign influence. Talking to Barratt old timers, about the time when we had French, Spanish and US businesses, that is not something to take for granted.
And secondly, that however frustrating some UK nimbys are, we developers need to work harder to build trust and respect for our product. Especially as perceptions of the sector are perhaps less negative as in the US.
Houses are becoming both scarcer and more financially important to their owners. We need to understand that and perhaps message to local residents on these concerns rather than just about the tilted balance or traffic congestion. And, however difficult, recognise that being confrontational in a confrontational process often doesn’t end well.
But if the US does precede UK trends and cultures then Snob Zones does not paint an attractive housing future. It foretells of increasing societal separation and greater polarisation between perceptions of conservation and new development. Watching UK suburban Council leaders proclaiming a need for less housing within 24 hours of new lower household projections isn’t grounds for optimism.
The possible rise of an “I was here first” mentality, focused on certain age and income groups, pulling up a ladder they were pleased to climb up themselves. Perhaps we need more granular research on the drivers and nature of localism and nimbyism in the UK.
Developers, planners, politicians, and others, with influence in addressing the housing crisis perhaps need to step up. An approach which restricts aspiration and access to capital appears only likely to store up trouble. Especially as the UK public debate appears to be moving away from the shortage of homes and more towards the profits of landowners.