January 16, 2024   7 mins

What do a mulberry tree, a newt and a railway station car park have in common? All of them have provided a reason, or maybe a pretext, to block the construction of new homes in Britain. In fairness, the mulberry tree is very old — a “veteran” tree, according to the National Planning Policy Framework. But whether it should have prevented the conversion of a derelict East End hospital into nearly 300 flats is another question. When shortages have contributed to average house prices rising more than 60% in a decade — and rents doubling in the same period — an ancient tree in an urban area starts to resemble a luxury more than a right.

This story helps to illustrate why discussion of Britain’s housing crisis focuses on two issues above all: the planning system and Nimbyism. The two are closely connected, since it is the planning system that provides Nimbys with their legal tools, and in return Nimbys protect the planning system itself. This planning system is byzantine, unpredictable, expensive and slow. It requires local authorities to assign land ahead of time based on their own assessment of local needs, rather than actual demand, and allows them to reject applications even when they meet its stated requirements. It protects greenbelt areas that, as the name suggests, are corsets specifically designed to prevent the expansion of the most productive urban areas. The Centre for Cities think tank claims that, had British planning been closer to the European norm, it could now have 4.3 million additional houses.

A thick coating of safety and environmental regulations has made the process more unwieldy still. As one architect fulminated in a trade organ last year, “the system has become close to impossible”, since “even a small application for a single replacement house… can require a small army of consultants to address collateral issues such as trees, ecology, landscape, energy use, highways, heritage, drainage, surface water disposal, flood risk, light spillage, air quality, acoustics, and contamination”. It took him 27 months to get a single house approved. Each agency and requirement seems justifiable by itself, but in combination they form a bureaucratic thicket that is showing increasingly Soviet characteristics. Juliet Samuel recently reported that enterprising councillors have found ways of “selling inside information on how the planning system works to those who will pay to know”.

To make matters worse, local government cuts have left planning departments severely understaffed. Across 17 local authorities, average annual funding has fallen by 44% since 2010, while the average number of employees has more than halved. And it isn’t just house building that is affected; it is, if anything, even more difficult to build the infrastructure that houses need. National Grid’s Ben Wilson has claimed that, largely thanks to the planning process, it can take more than 10 years to install an electricity transmission line. Earlier this month, The Times reported on a railway footbridge in Berkshire that has taken longer to build than the Empire State building.

This is all deeply humiliating for the Conservative Party. The supposed party of home ownership, individual opportunity and economic growth cannot supply the one basic commodity that would most facilitate all these goals, even as it has created still more demand by overseeing historically unprecedented levels of immigration. Not only has the government failed to once meet its target of building 300,000 houses annually, it cannot even find projects on which to use the allocated funds. It recently emerged that more than two-thirds of a £4.2 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund, created in 2017, is still unspent. And in September, the Home Builders Federation released an analysis claiming that planning permissions for new homes had fallen to their lowest level since it started collecting data in 2006.

A succession of efforts to reform planning, each less ambitious than the last, have all foundered on the opposition of Tory MPs whose voters don’t want to surrender their veto on local projects. Unsurprisingly, Labour leader Keir Starmer has spotted an opportunity in all of this. In his October conference speech, he held up the “pebble-dashed semi” of his own childhood as a symbol of the “dream of home ownership”, and vowed to build 1.5 million new houses by “removing the blockages” in the planning system.

Yet this political fixation on building more homes has obscured the true scope and nature of the housing crisis. Britain has more problems with housing than just the shortage of it; there is also the matter of what kind of homes people must settle for. And the politics of house building is not just a case of bypassing local activists armed with data on nutrient levels and bat populations. There are fundamental questions of trust in play, and deep tensions between the local and the national. If left to fester, these seemingly secondary issues will ensure that any revival of house building in the UK is only fleeting.

To put it bluntly, Britain cannot actually build decent houses at scale. Its construction industry is in a sorry state, with its contractors notorious for poor workmanship and unreliability, and its new builds famously shoddy. The Camden development where, five years after completion, apartments sold for the best part of £1 million are so riddled with flaws as to be “effectively worthless” is only one example of a much wider problem. The poor standards of volume housebuilders have given rise to an industry of snaggers, hired by nervous homeowners to find defects in newly finished homes. All the while, the construction workforce is shrinking — smaller now than in 2007, and yet to recover its pre-Covid level — and getting older, with a third of hours worked by people over the age of 50. Those young people who do enter the trade are not gaining adequate skills.

In 2016, Mark Farmer published a damning review of the construction industry. He observed that big housebuilding firms exploit the smaller subcontractors that rely on them for work, denying them capital to invest in training and greater productivity. A fragmented system also allows operators to dodge responsibility for projects, leading to “a general acceptance of failure and underperformance”. Farmer warned that “if we do not address in short order how the construction industry operates and delivers, we will see a long-term and inexorable decline in its fortunes”. Almost a decade later, the departure of skilled EU workers has only made the situation worse.

Another problem, as detailed by Oliver Wainwright, is that a handful of investment firms exercise outsized influence over major housebuilders, who in turn capture the lion’s share of big contracts. The profits of these companies have been booming since the Great Financial Crisis, even as standards deteriorate. The two trends are linked, as cutting costs on materials and skilled labour protects returns for shareholders even in a downturn. Altogether, the construction industry reflects the flaws that have plagued the British economy more generally in recent decades: underinvestment, low productivity, financialisation, and a culture that affords low status to some of its most important practical work.

The upshot is that an overhaul of the construction industry, focusing on recruitment and training in particular, should be seen as integral to addressing the housing crisis. According to a recent report by the Chartered Institute of Building, the public is already suspicious of the quality and character of new builds. If planning reform results in hundreds of thousands of substandard homes that no one wants to live in, it will only deepen the resistance to building in the medium term.

Mistrust has already seeped into the politics of housebuilding. The term Nimby is unhelpful insofar as it encourages us to imagine that the country is being held ransom by small, well-organised groups of pathologically selfish people. But the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June 2021, which effectively killed the Conservatives’ appetite for genuine planning reform, saw the Liberal Democrats overturn a 16,000 majority in part by playing to fears that locals would be powerless to stop new developments. Controversial building proposals were also a factor in numerous local election battles in May 2023, as they had been the previous year. In other words, Nimbyism is a more popular cause than we give it credit for.

Clearly not everyone is a fan. For obvious reasons, the two-thirds of the population who own their homes — who tend to be older and wealthier — are more likely to oppose building than the remainder who do not. The same goes for those living in rural areas. And these groups are more likely to be Conservative voters, which means that the politics of housebuilding should be somewhat easier for Labour. But not by much. Only one fifth of households in Labour’s target constituencies are privately rented, according to the Financial Times, while two-thirds are owner-occupied. This means that, while the party’s current voters are more friendly to building new homes, the same is not true of those they need to win over.

There is no avoiding the fact that, on a small and crowded island, it is quite difficult to find places to build significant numbers of houses that won’t anger an equally significant number of people. So the real question is not how can the malign influence of Nimbys be circumvented, but how can the anxieties of local communities in general be addressed. The problem is that policy-minded people tend to see the next step in purely transactional terms. Ideas such as community land auctions and street votes, which give existing residents the opportunity to enrich themselves by allowing more development, assume that misgivings are, if not purely financial, then remediable by financial means.

Of course, material considerations do matter. More houses mean more traffic, more demand on overstretched local services, and quite possibly the devaluation of the property you were planning to pass on to your children. But it also matters how people understand their local existence in relation to the country as a whole; it matters to what extent they feel responsible for ensuring there are homes for other people’s children. If they feel part of a wider society where they have a voice and whose authorities they regard as competent and accountable, they will be less inclined to see development as something imposed on them from the outside.

What we have in Britain today is essentially the opposite: a country whose direction most people feel they have no control over, with a prevailing mood of dysfunction and competition for scarce resources. These circumstances encourage a kind of siege mentality. A local area which is moderately pleasant seems that much more precious, change seems more risky, and local powers become all the more significant since this is the only place where people can actually exert any influence.

In other words, vibes matter, and I don’t think the housing issue can be disentangled from the ambient sense of exasperation induced by soaring NHS waiting lists, crumbling schools, paralysed railways, financial mismanagement and broken promises on immigration. When chaos prevails, is it any wonder the politics of the local housing association becomes highly attractive? Is it not even plausible that, for some people at least, resistance to development is a political act intended to assert the sovereignty of the local against the national? We should understand Nimbyism not purely in terms of material self-interest, but as a very British form of populism — and one that will only grow if it isn’t handled with care.

Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.