Neutering the nimbys

In the fight for decent, affordable homes, one of the key constraints has been public attitudes to housebuilding in general and to social housing in particular.

I’ve studied dozens of anti-housebuilding campaigns over the years. In my experience, opposition to housebuilding is often based on prejudice, and a dislike of change. Campaigners typically invent a menu of often tenuous reasons for opposing new homes, whether it’s great crested newts (planted in some cases, allegedly), or exaggerated claims about a lack of health services or schools, transport gridlock, inadequate water and sewerage infrastructure, flooding, and so on. It’s as if the planning system was not meant to address such problems. In Uttlesford, the council was even captured by anti-development residents.

The stigmatisation of social housing tenants has also been a big factor in our failure to build affordable homes, whether it’s poor doors, or the tricks that developers use to evade or hide their duty to provide affordable homes. One of the key aims of the SHOUT campaign was to end the stigmatisation of social housing tenants by challenging the way they’re portrayed in the media.

The SHOUT manifesto in 2014 said: “Much of the media twins welfare dependency with social housing. This is untrue. Reliance upon benefits is the offspring of dependency, not its parent. Dependency is caused by lack of well-paid work, by unaffordable rents and house prices, by low wages and high living costs.”

In recent times both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have taken the view that social housing tenants vote Labour and homeowners don’t, so investment in social housing has been paltry. At the launch of the SHOUT campaign in Parliament we told the story of the Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames became an open sewer. It was only when Members of Parliament were directly affected by the problem (Parliament had to close) that they voted to invest in a proper network of sewers for London. There’s a lesson there for today surely?

Apologies for that long preamble but two recent opinion polls offer some hope that the tide may be turning. The first, from Ipsos MORI for the Chartered Institute of Housing, shows that a growing proportion of Britons think political parties are not treating the housing crisis seriously: 60% of respondents disagreed that political parties pay a lot of attention to housing problems, up from 41% in 2014. Only 12% agreed that they do pay a lot of attention. A majority, 55% (68% of renters), think the issue of housing has been discussed too little in Britain over the last few years.


In addition, 57%, think that the rising cost of housing will impact on them personally in the next five years and 52% support the building of new homes locally, more than twice the proportion who oppose this (21%), up from 40% five years ago. 73% think there is a national housing crisis, although only 45% think there’s a crisis in their local area. (Opponents of housebuilding usually believe that the shortage of housing exists somewhere else, not locally!).

Refreshingly, 58% are in favour of building social housing in their area, compared to 52% who support all types of housing. Finally, 76% felt that social housing is important because it helps people on lower incomes to access decent housing and 68% felt that it helps to tackle poverty.

The second survey, the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey, finds that more people now report that they’d be comfortable living next to social housing than uncomfortable. 41% of people said they would be comfortable living next to social housing, and only 24% uncomfortable. Owners display greater prejudice: 30% said they would feel comfortable compared to 73% of social renters and 46% of private renters.

It’s not quite a Great Stink moment, but it does suggest that public attitudes are softening.The public can see with their own eyes that the streets of our major cities are now home to increasing numbers of people living in tents and shop doorways. On top of this, more and more families must have experienced at first hand the problems caused by homelessness, high rents, rising house prices and the lack of decent, affordable homes.

If our democracy is working effectively then the experiences and opinions of the mass of the people must surely be filtering upwards and grabbing the attention of our elected representatives.

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