The writer is the FT’s architecture and design critic

The first Nimbys were protesting against nuclear waste storage facilities being built beside their homes. Originating in the US in the 1970s, the description slowly shifted from the blue-collar and marginalised communities protesting against toxic dumping to established middle-class homeowners who objected to anything. The Nimbys went Bananas (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) until they were blamed, often with justification, for stymieing any new housebuilding.

The UK government’s new proposals to reform the planning process appear to channel the spirit of Nimbyism. They follow the bruising reception given to their last effort, which led to Robert Jenrick being ejected from his job as housing minister.

Most eye-catching is the proposed introduction of “street votes”, local micro-referendums on planning proposals. Following on from their enormous success in bringing the country together with the Brexit referendum, the Tories now seek to impose that same sense of harmony and co-operation on neighbourhoods across the nation.

Taken almost wholly from a report by right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange and the lobby group Create Streets, the proposals envisage a more democratic and responsive system that would allow communities to come together to oppose but also potentially to propose new developments. At their heart is an idea about empowering communities in the planning process.

The intention is that local residents will be able to identify sites for “densification”, perhaps even to develop these sites themselves, expanding their homes and streets and profiting from them. These might be rows of garages, terraces which could easily have another storey added or streets with widely spaced properties that could benefit from what urban planners call “infill”. 

As a proposition this is as full of gaps as a street of detached executive houses. Whereas the previous set of government proposals would have seen large developments in designated areas get approval almost by default (this fell foul of Tory MPs fearful of their shire and greenbelt constituencies), this new system looks more likely to entrench housing inequality.

Michael Gove, Jenrick’s successor, suggests it will be instrumental in making better neighbourhoods and in empowering communities. But it would also hugely favour existing property owners, who would be able to expand their homes cooperatively, thus inflating property values for the asset-rich.

Gove is right to state that the houses that are currently being built are often “shoddy, in the wrong place . . . and are not contributing to beautiful communities”. The system today favours the big housebuilders with their land banks, planning consultants and generous Tory party donations. The new proposals would favour communities which are better able to identify appropriate sites for redevelopment. The problem is that those sites are likely to be elsewhere. The empowered residents would be those with the time and means to pore over reams of documentation and engage in lobbying and protest. What rights would renters and social housing tenants have? The young? Whose voices would be heard?

Britain is a housing outlier in Europe. On the continent many more people build their own houses. In the UK the figures for self-builders are almost negligible and the government has been relying on scale housebuilders to solve the housing problem for decades.

The UK planning system, under-resourced by councils starved of cash, has defaulted to being developer-led. Planners have the wherewithal only to react, not to plan. Perhaps these reforms might encourage community-led developments or self-building. But there is much here that looks problematic.

The reforms aim to encourage “beauty”, but whose idea of beauty? How do communities (as opposed to just landowners) capture the value of the uplift in prices? How will major new developments ever get built? How, exactly, will the infrastructure levy work? And how do the proposals address the reuse of existing structures?

The UK’s construction industry is still haunted by the ghost of Grenfell, by a failed building regulation system and a planning regime that has enabled and encouraged car-led development on green field sites and dreadful heaps of incoherent investor towers in city centres ruining skylines forever.

The government’s plan does address a few issues about local democracy, albeit in vague terms, but it tackles few of the bigger problems, notably the huge housing shortage. It is an attempt to sort out internal Tory squabbles in the public arena through not one but potentially thousands of referendums. And, as we know, nothing gets as bitter as a dispute between neighbours.

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