Housing and Planning

The problem with ‘everything-bagel’ YIMBYism

Earlier this year, progressive columnist Ezra Klein wrote a column criticising ‘everything-bagel liberalism’ (by “liberalism”, Klein meant left wing progressivism, not actual liberalism). He wrote that “one problem [progressives] are facing at every level where they govern is that they often add too much. They do so with good intentions and lament their poor results.”

Klein uses California – where progressive Democrats dominate every level of government – as a case study in bad outcomes when policymakers try to ‘pile too much on the bagel’. In doing so, Klein highlighted the trade-off denial that pervades progressivism in the United States.

In one case, a developer in San Francisco managed to build new apartments priced around (a comparatively cheap) $400,000 apiece within three years – around half the usual price and time for new affordable housing projects in the Bay Area. They did so by finding a way to circumvent the troubled city’s absurdly burdensome planning system. This was to the chagrin of local progressive politicians and their allies in the labour unions who felt cheated out of high quality jobs for their members. This is ‘everything-bagel progressivism’ manifest. Of course they want more good things, but only if it comes with all the other good things attached.

Klein’s piece is part of a growing realisation among policy wonks on the American centre-left that a progressive agenda requires acknowledging trade-offs. Clearly there needs to be a similar realisation here in the UK.

This week, government proposals to reform ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules were rejected in the House of Lords. This would have meant clearing a blocker preventing over 100,000 new homes from being built. Despite promises to back ‘builders not blockers,’ Labour buckled at the first sign of a trade-off and helped reject the amendment.

The trade-off itself is actually fairly minor, if not non-existent, in this case. The rules prevent new houses polluting waterways – specifically phosphate levels in wastewater outlays around ecologically vulnerable rivers and conservation sites. But waste from new homes makes a ‘very small’ contribution according to the government. The vast majority of pollution comes from agriculture, followed by existing homes and commercial operations.

In fact, the water firms would still be required to strip out phosphates from wastewater by 2030 and the government had even promised to fund conservation projects to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge in the meantime.

But of course, a slight weakening of environmental protections isn’t necessary in the eyes of trade-off deniers because they believe you can have everything all at once – overzealous environmental regulations, new houses for anyone who wants them, and, of course, economic growth. Labour’s leadership is quickly becoming a band of ‘everything-bagel YIMBYs’.

They are by no means the first everything-bagel YIMBYs and they won’t be the last; very few people, even NIMBYs, are actually against all housebuilding per se. But across the political (and apolitical) spectrum, the problem is precisely that people are desperate to ensure houses can only be built in a way that doesn’t inconvenience them at all.

Serial NIMBY activists, local politicians, and constituency MPs campaign against the disruption and change caused by new houses being built in their areas. Environmentalists can only countenance housebuilding if they conform to an exhaustive list of Net Zero regulations and don’t infringe on an inch of green belt or otherwise protected land. Indeed, many conservative policy wonks (who increasingly recognise the need to build more houses) are often guilty of everything-bagel-ism if proposed developments don’t conform to Roger Scruton’s aesthetic standards.

In Labour’s case, there was always a risk that their YIMBY rhetoric would be diluted by a centre-left wish list. ‘We’re going to build’, says Sir Keir Starmer (terms and conditions apply: must be social housing, built by unionised workers, private developers shouldn’t profit much, environmental regulations cannot change, and must pass our good quality home test).

I have no doubt that Sir Keir sincerely wishes to see more homes built. For one thing, Labour’s electoral position is so dominant that he had very little political incentive to enrage homeowners by adopting YIMBY rhetoric. They also tend to represent younger and city-based voters who want more houses. However, his everything-bagel mindset betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both NIMBYism and the impact of planning laws.

It is not the intention underpinning a given regulation that stops houses being built, it’s the cost of compliance combined with projects being evaluated on a case-by-case basis, which gives NIMBY locals and politicians the pretext to object to almost any development they like. This, in turn, slows or halts housebuilding and creates a chilling effect on future building plans. In either case, fewer houses get built and existing homes become more expensive.

Freeing up more land for development and ‘backing builders over blockers’ would be positive steps, but it would do little to solve the issue if Labour adds to the already-extensive list of grounds to halt new developments. What the housing crisis calls for is a permissive planning system and if restrictions are imposed on peoples’ right to build on their own property, they must be simple and consistently applied.

If Labour comes to power at the next election and refuses to accept this reality, it will be the very groups they exist to represent – young people, marginalised groups, the working poor – who continue to suffer at the expense of Britain’s entrenched property-owning class.

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