YIMBYism: A Primer (Part 1)
Whether the LOTO’s newfound YIMBYism is genuine, or whether a possible future Starmer government would be willing and able to turn it into an actual policy programme, is not for me to judge. What I’m more interested in is that YIMBYism finally seems to be becoming a thing.
But what exactly is a “YIMBY”? And why is this something you would ask a potential future Prime Minister?
On the face of it, a YIMBY is simply the opposite of a NIMBY: NIMBYs oppose housing development, YIMBYs support it. But clearly, there is a bit more to it than that. If you had told me about those issues 17 or 18 years ago, it would have made no sense to me. I would have understood that people feel differently about housebuilding, but I would not have understood why you need labels to describe those outlooks, let alone why you would describe someone’s political views in such terms.
So let’s take a few steps back.
I recently had a look at the history of the terms NIMBY and YIMBY via a news archive. The earliest use of “NIMBY” I could find was in an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer from January 1983, which said:
“Previous government programs that attempted to disperse housing opportunities for low-income people proved relatively unsuccessful in Cincinnati. The opposition in the suburbs and the outlying neighborhoods of the city was fierce. For example:
- 1,500 people showed up for a meeting in Green Township to oppose 50 units of low-income housing in an abandoned drive-in site.
- Mount Washington and Westwood residents engaged in prolonged political and legal battles to keep similar projects out of their neighborhoods.
“It’s the NIMBY syndrome – Not In My Back Yard”, said Stephen Bloomfield, the city’s housing director. “People seem to be saying, ‘Just don’t put it here.’”
Two things stand out from this article.
Firstly, NIMBYism is not simply a sentiment. It has real, tangible policy implications. Plenty of people are irritated by plenty of things, but most of us don’t set up protest groups to get everything we don’t like banned.
Secondly, while this is from a local newspaper which discusses local instances of NIMBYism, it also makes clear that NIMBYism is a nationwide issue. More precisely, it discusses NIMBYism in the context of a housing voucher programme planned by the Reagan administration, which aims to give low-income earners greater choice in housing. It argues that this will only work if the supply side of the housing market is sufficiently responsive – which it won’t be if NIMBYs stifle it.
A month later, the Times-Advocate, a local paper in California, reported on an initiative that tried to block planning permission for a residential care home for disabled people:
“It’s the classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome – everybody recognizes the need for such things […] but when it’s proposed in their neighborhood, they organize a protest.”
The use of “classic” suggests that at least in American English, the word was already sufficiently well-established by then.
A few years later, it arrived in Britain. In 1990, the Centre for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite think tank, published a short book entitled NIMBYism: The Disease And The Cure, which explains:
“The phrase ‘not in my back yard’ sprang to fame when it was used by Nicholas Ridley, then Secretary of State for the Environment, to describe […] forceful local opposition to development […]
He called the protesters nimbys, it was a good phrase, it stuck, and now two years later everybody knows what a nimby is.”
What becomes even clearer in this booklet is that NIMBYism does not simply mean being protective of the character of your local area, or being averse to change. If it were just that, neither the CPS nor any other think tank would have bothered to publish a book on the subject. NIMBYism as a general sentiment is not a problem. NIMBYism combined with the political power block things is. The book makes clear that even in 1990, NIMBYism was already demonstrably having detrimental impacts on the British economy in a number of ways, house price inflation being just the most obvious one.
One can find other examples of foresighted publications making similar arguments which have aged extremely well. The IEA book No room! No room!, published in 1988, does not use the words “NIMBY” or “NIMBYism”, but it highlights the crucial role of “neighbours and others objecting to the proposal”, who “lose the right to live undisturbed if the development goes ahead”. It also highlights a major asymmetry in the planning system: while the former group has extensive powers to object, “the future occupiers of the development […], who in one sense are those most affected by the decision, are usually unrepresented when the decision over land-use is made”.
These publications were, however, very much the exception. The word NIMBYism may have caught on by 1990, but until very recently, it was not widely understood why NIMBYism is such a big problem. Until just a few years ago, it was not uncommon to read long articles on Britain’s housing crisis which did not once mention NIMBYism, or the planning system which enables it. Commentators would blame the housing crisis on anything under the sun – greedy developers, the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, Buy-To-Let landlords, foreign buyers… – except its actual main cause.
Where there is no sufficient understanding of the problem of NIMBYism, there can be no YIMBYism.
So how did YIMBYism emerge?
Again, the word is not new. In October 1986, the Washington-based Tri-City Herald published a reader’s letter by one Milton Lewis, who said:
“Naysayers are getting to me. This country was not built by people who say “no” to everything. It was done by people who said “Yes, let’s try.” […]
Let’s say YIMBY (yes, in my back yard) and put a stop to NIMBY (not in my back yard). It’s time to be positive! YIMBY not NIMBY!”
Thank you, Milton, you legend!
However, for the next thirty years or so, uses of “YIMBY” remained isolated, and confined to discussions of specific projects. More importantly, YIMBYism was not really a policy, but more of a personal outlook. The idea is that NIMBYs just need to stop whining, and get out of the way, so that the rest of us can get on with things. It is not until the second half of the 2010s that “YIMBYism” becomes something more systematic.
That was also when it spilled over to Britain. It was probably brought here by John Myers, the founder of the campaign group London YIMBY, who wrote in the Guardian in 2017:
“A rapidly growing international movement […] is demanding urgent action from governments to address the housing crisis […]
We unite under the banner Yes In My Back Yard: yes to more decent, truly affordable housing […]
We are the opposite of nimby. […]
We estimate that over time GDP could be raised by roughly 30% permanently through a sustained period of building many more decent homes, particularly near the best places for job and training opportunities”.
Used in this sense, YIMBYism is not merely a sentiment, and it does not simply mean being comfortable with housing development. It is also a set of policy proposals (if broad-brush ones), and one that, if its proponents are right, could make Britain a substantially richer country.
Continue to Part 2…