NIMBY or SLIMBY? A view on housing in the UK

Home Affairs
Monday, January 6, 2014
Cllr Charles Fifield FRICS

Whilst all Planning Applications must be considered on their individual circumstances, as a Chartered Surveyor who is also a local councillor I have given the overall UK housing issue some considerable thought over the years as it is quite clear there has been a growing difficulty in housing supply in the UK.

Basic economics tells us prices are determined by supply and demand. However, we live in a country where demand follows the economic cycle whilst supply lags behind. This has meant in the past 50 years we have had five serious property crashes: two in the 1970s, one in the early 1980s, one in the early 1990s and one in the late 2000s.

Ultimately the problem is that we don’t have enough houses in the country and this has made them more and more expensive. Thus when an economic downturn occurs, as it will from time to time, the UK is very prone to property crashes as huge demand disappears almost overnight, leaving an oversupply due to the inevitable time delays due to planning and construction.

The sensible solution is, of course, to build more houses, however since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the right to develop land has effectively been nationalised for the public good to ensure development is appropriate. Despite the various changes in planning legislation over the intervening decades, this principle remains, albeit now with a presumption in favour of “sustainable development.”

Whilst people generally agree we need to build houses they disagree on where they should be built, and the “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) is charicatured in the media.

The reality is somewhat more complicated. In my experience as a Councillor what may appear to be a NIMBY protest group is a mixture: the traditional NIBMY viewpoint from some, but from most there is usuallly acceptance of the need for development but opposition to a specificproposal due a desire to see something better, smaller and more appropriate to the local area. I have adopted the phrase “Something Logical In My Back Yard”, or SLIMBY, as an acronym for these people.

I believe it is the views of the SLIMBY who hold the key to dealing with the housing problem that affects our country.

The only way to tackle the housing issue in the UK is to properly engage the public as to the huge need for housing and to encourage people to proactively consider where and how houses should be built.

As part of this, larger scale developments will be required and I would recommend communities and councils read the September 2013 Royal Town Planning Institute paper on “Delivering Large Scale Housing” which recommends a proactive approach.  My profession body, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, also produced a Housing Commission report in June 2013. Another novel approach is the Wolfson Economics Prize which is offering £250,000 to the best practical submission on “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?”. I would however like to concentrate on housing where local communities can be more proactive.

For many people, the thought of new housing on the green fields next to them is abhorrent: “build on brownfield land first” is the natural response. However, whilst this is logical there are three things which must never be forgotten about in property: “Location, location, location”.

Building houses where people don’t want to live rather than where they do creates an even wider economic reason to build elsewhere due to the large price differential, which in turn changes the demographics of an area.

The message I try to give in relation to housing is that if we don’t build new houses somewhere, many of our communities will have wide gaps in demographics, as only older, wealthier people can afford to buy or rent there and younger families will be priced out of the market and go elsewhere. The wider impact of this means closures of schools, shops and other facilities, further impacting on communities.

I believe the policy of Neighbourhood Plans is a good one, it means a local community has to grasp the nettle in relation to the tricky decision of “shaping not stopping” development and be proactive on the issue. Too many communities now look back with hindsight following the building of large developments, realise this was inevitable and wish they had considered more of how to shape it.

With an increasingly ageing population, communities might wish to pro-actively look at encouraging more bungalows and residential care facilities, so older people have the opportunity of downsizing within their own community and free up larger homes for younger families.

For these reasons I would also advocate communities, councils and developers consider the design of schemes more carefully and I would recommend the adoption of Building for Life 12 Standards for all schemes where possible. BfL12 encourages developers to try and integrate new developments more carefully into existing settlements, so they appear more organic growth than imposed.

One aspect of new developments which seems illogical is the preference for cul-de-sacs rather than through roads, this means by definition, new developments can only add to existing traffic flow and it is very difficult to encourage bus routes or further integration with the existing settlement.

Whilst large brownfield and greenfield sites will be required to meet the housing supply deficit, one area of potential housing development which should be considered is conversion of redundant commercial property, which councils and communities should be proactive about.

With an increasing elderly demographic and a reduced public sector, there is likely to be a growing supply of unsuitable office accommodation e.g. offices on upper floors in buildings with no lifts, in town centres which if converted to flats would appeal to younger people.

There has also been a fundamental shift in retailing which means in most towns and cities some retailing areas have shrunk permanently. Is it not better to accept reality and allow the periphery retailing areas to convert, indeed upper floors in the main retailing areas may be suitable for conversion.

There may also old industrial, distribution and warehousing properties which are now in mainly residential areas, why not encourage the occupiers to move to modern facilities and allow residential re-development.

All of these measures would help to increase the housing supply without a major impact on the local community. Indeed converting redundant commercial properties within towns could breath new life into those centres, as people would live in the town centre, are more likely to shop there too.

Recent changes to Planning Legislation have made some changes of use from commercial to residential much easier as well. As a Chartered Surveyor, I often recommend consideration of the option of commercial to residential conversion to clients as a more logical long term viable solution.

There are also other government policies which need far wider promotion and those are the financial incentives for new housing through the New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Levies, both of which can actively financially benefit councils and communities affected by new developments.

In summary, I believe it is important for all communities to become SLIMBYs and pro-actively look at the housing needs in their areas, adopt a neighbourhood plan, insist on BfL12 as being part of the conditions they would look on new development in their area, and pro-actively encourage conversion of redundant commercial buildings.

Cllr Charles Fifield FRICS is a Conservative councillor on Cheshire West & Chester borough council and a chartered surveyor with Fifield Glyn.