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Why Liz Truss is wrong

Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

February 15, 2019   4 mins

Keresley, a village a few miles from Coventry, has been earmarked for 3,100 new homes. The villagers are up in arms; a petition asking Coventry Council to reconsider has gathered 400 signatures. The Council is refusing to budge.

All those new houses may sound great, but if the development goes ahead, Keresley will cease to exist. At the time of the 2011 census, the parish had a population of just over 700 residents. As the local councillor Glenn Williams says, adding thousands of homes will transform it from a village into a town, and, presumably, remove the very reason many residents choose to live there.

No doubt Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will be delighted by Coventry Council’s steam-roller approach. In a speech earlier this month she cited Nimbys as Public Enemy Number 1.

“The worst vested interest we’ve got is existing home-owners who block development. I think that is the biggest challenge we face – how are we going to reform the system when there’s a fundamental anti-development bias in our country?”

“We do have to be prepared to take on those who don’t want a house built in the field next to them.”

It is an odd stance for someone claiming to be a ‘conservative’. The roots of the Conservative Party name in the verb ‘to conserve’ are nowhere to be seen here. Rather than conservation, the Truss-Treasury approach favours a combination of destruction and construction, which is the more familiar terrain of the revolutionary.

This vision is really a progressive one, closely allied to Tony Blair’s ‘world of change’, lauding transformation and upheaval over the preservation and conservation of established goods.

Perhaps the most important established good is the home. The home is somewhere familiar that responds to our needs and wants and where we gather what is valuable to us in one place. It is also a place that is not circumscribed by the four walls of the property itself. The garden, the street, the lane, local amenities and neighbours who you know are all part of the familiarity and comfort of home.

Nimbys typically get blasted by policy elites for only caring about house prices. But someone saying ‘Not in my Back Yard’ to houses, roads, a runway or a new waste plant near where they live is attempting to preserve the meaning and quality of their life; attempting to defend their little corner of social capital against the forces of economic Progress, which are expanding relentlessly into our environment.

Destroy that environment of familiarity and space around the home and it becomes less of a home. Communities are uprooted. Relations between people and places are diluted and destroyed.

Truss explained her stance as a way of attracting the youth vote, of winning over areas that don’t traditionally vote Conservative and as a “popular free-market agenda” that will “give people a greater feeling of control over their own destiny and a greater feeling of pride in their country, their area and themselves.”

The residents of Keresley are not benefiting from a greater feeling of control. The Council’s agenda to push through mass development will strip many of them of what they value about their home – whether peace and tranquillity, a nice view from the front room, or that feeling of living in a small, close-knit community.

The freedom of developers to build new estates is at the same time a compulsion on existing residents to put up with a big change in their circumstances.

As economic historian Karl Polanyi (nearly) said, laissez-faire must be planned in order to work. Truss’ version of free markets must be enforced by government in order to prevail. Other sources of power – like that of communities themselves – must be removed. Local Plans like in Coventry help to do just that.

Of course, Nimbys can be wrong about development. They often fixate on irrelevant or insignificant issues in order to express their more general opposition to development, any development, that affects them even in the most trivial way. Truss is right that their micro-local focus does not help address the issue of young people not being able to afford their own homes, or even to rent.

But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored, or worse vilified; they still play an important role. By their nagging and hectoring, they put pressure on councils and developers to be more thoughtful in their proposals, and to abandon many bad ones.

This is how local democracy should work: by the involvement and consent of local people.

But, along with democracy at other levels in our globalising, market-driven world, the local version is under threat.

Those who oversee our society have a problem to deal with, one that their own policies created. After all, it is they, with Treasury mandarins at the forefront, who created our housing crisis, by overseeing an economy reliant on ever-increasing house prices – and by sponsoring a twenty year population boom via mass immigration. The situation we find ourselves in is the entirely predictable – even intended – consequence of their actions. Progressives on the liberal-Left and the free market Right both deserve a share of the blame.

Transferring that blame and seeking to traduce the most community-minded of local people shows how far this progressive overclass have moved away from those with strong links to the places where they live.

These people are typically older than the mobile, anonymous worker-bees who, beloved of economic planners, have no roots in the community, and who do not know it well enough to want to defend it.

Nimbys are sufficiently rooted in their local environment that they want to preserve what for them is the best of it. That might be a nice view, a meadow where they take the dog for a walk, or the trees that make walking down a city street so much more pleasant. They attend the boring planning meetings, lodge the objections and gather the petitions that the rest of us are too busy, too tired and too lazy to do – or are simply oblivious to. They are protecting the environment – our environment – for free, against vested interests which are much better organised and resourced than they are.

It says a lot about the way we are being ruled that these local community activists are seen as the enemy of so many in government and policy-making circles. It also says a lot about modern conservatism that those making economic policy in a Conservative Government are fully signed up.

Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.


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