YIMBYism: A Primer (Part 3)
Quite often when a new subject comes along, people quickly pick sides, and sort themselves along familiar tribal lines. For example, in the current iteration of the Israel-Palestine conflict, everyone you would have expected to be pro-Israel is pro-Israel, and everyone you would have expected to be pro-Palestine is pro-Palestine.
The NIMBY-vs-YIMBY divide has so far been the exception to this. It cuts right across political parties and ideological camps.
To name a few examples:
The recent Liberal Democrat Conference was dominated by fierce clashes over national housebuilding targets, which the party leadership opposed, but which the youth organisation supported. Former party leader Tim Farron got booed during an angry speech denouncing housing targets, going as far as calling them the dreaded T-word (Thatcherism).
In the Labour Party, LOTO Keir Starmer is currently trying to position himself as a “YIMBY”. But he admitted that doing so would put him in opposition to some of his own MPs.
Which, indeed, it already does. When Starmer told the Times that he would relax greenbelt restrictions, former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell objected:
“The Green Belt was […] legislated for by the Attlee Labour Government in 1940s & has been the fundamental basis of a battle to protect the environment in working class urban constituencies like mine over decades”.
And last time a Housing Secretary tried to liberalise the planning system (Robert Jenrick in 2020/21), several Labour MPs opposed. Zarah Sultana, for example, tweeted:
“My colleague, [Apsana Begum MP], just gave a powerful speech in Parliament about how the Tories rig the housing system for developers & against her constituents.”
The Tories, meanwhile, have often put YIMBYs in important housing policy-related positions (Nick Boles, Sajid Javid, and the aforementioned Robert Jenrick), but then the NIMBY wing of the party blocked them from doing anything meaningful.
At the recent launch of the Priced Out manifesto, there were speakers from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. All of them spent a greater proportion of their allocated speaking time criticising NIMBYs within their own party than they spent criticising each other.
Similarly, every major newspaper in this country has published both NIMBY and YIMBY pieces. The Telegraph, for example, recently published “The Nimby’s guide to taking on developers – and winning. The art to blocking planning applications, be it a neighbour’s extension or bigger projects”. But they also published “Labour’s war on Nimbys should terrify the Tories”, “No more Nimbyism – let’s embrace the Great British sell-off”, and “Planning approvals fall to record low as ‘Nimbys’ block builders”, and a pro-YIMBY piece by myself.
Both NIMBYs and YIMBYs are broad cross-ideological coalitions, but the NIMBY coalition is the broader one of the two. You can find NIMBYs just about anywhere on the ideological spectrum: among Marxist and Degrowth environmentalists, but also among “TradCons” and “NatCons”.
The YIMBY coalition is not quite as broad as that. For example, I have yet to come across a Marxist YIMBY. (The closest thing is perhaps Aaron Bastani, who recently complained about “the nimby-fication of British politics, and our complete incapacity to build anything” – although, being Bastani, he immediately had to assert that this was somehow “a consequence of the supremacy of liberal individualism”.) Marxists hate YIMBYism, because one implication of the YIMBY agenda is that things can be improved under capitalism. We don’t need to overthrow everything, and build an entirely new economic system from scratch. We just need to build some houses. We don’t need all this trendy waffle about class structures and class power and class consciousness; we just need to stack some bricks on top of each other. Of course, for Marxists, this is all just a distraction from the class struggle, which delays the socialist revolution.
At the other end of the spectrum: while it would be perfectly coherent to combine YIMBYism with a call for tighter immigration controls, in order to reduce demand for housing alongside increasing supply, that combination is rare in practice. There are conservative YIMBYs, but they tend to be at the more socially liberal end of the conservative spectrum – including on immigration.
But even so, this still leaves a relatively broad YIMBY coalition, consisting of centre-left social democrats, reform-minded conservatives, and free-market liberals. How is it that in these hyper-tribal times, when opinions usually come in big package deals, these different groups manage to form a coalition?
The answer is that housing is turning into what my colleague Dr Steve Davies calls an “alignment issue”. An alignment issue is an issue which defines whom we see as a political ally, and whom we see as a political opponent. If you are on my side of the alignment issue, you are my ally, even if we disagree on many other things. If you are on the other side of the alignment issue, you are my opponent, even if we agree on many other things.
For a long time, the primary alignment issue in British politics was whether you are a Big Government or a Small Government kind of person. That continues to be an important dividing line. But in the context of 2020s Britain, I, as a free-market YIMBY, have more in common with a centre-left YIMBY than I have with a right-wing NIMBY.
This is obviously an extremely crude rule-of-thumb, and it depends on what exactly that means in each case. But the point is that the housing crisis is Britain’s bottleneck issue. Which means that if you are on the wrong side of that divide, you cannot balance that out by being right about other things. You can have fantastic tax policies, but if you have nothing to offer on the housing crisis, I’m not interested. Meanwhile, if you have great ideas on how to solve the housing crisis, I can forgive you for getting other things wrong (within reason).
“Are you a NIMBY or a YIMBY?” is the Gretchenfrage of our time. So stop waffling about how “it’s more complex than that” (it’s not), and pick a side.