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Why do ‘open’ liberals live in closed communities?

They may deplore Trump's wall in American liberal enclaves like San Francisco, but their restrictions on development serve as a financial barrier to incomers.

February 21, 2020 - 7:00am

For some people ‘open versus closed‘ is the new Left versus Right. But how ‘open’ are the communities they choose to live in?

In the case of Britain’s big cities and prosperous university towns, there’s an obvious gap between thought and action.

It’s a point well-made in a piece by Sam Watling for City Journal:

It’s ironic… that self-identified ‘open’ cities restrict people from living in them, whereas ‘closed’ areas build housing for newcomers. Paul Cheshire, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, notes that in the five years before 2013, Leave-voting Doncaster and Barnsley built twice as many houses as Remain-voting Oxford and Cambridge—despite a far greater need for new housing in the larger cities
- Sam Watling, City Journal

It’s the same story in American liberal enclaves like San Francisco. They may deplore Trump’s wall, but their restrictions on development serve as a financial barrier to incomers.

In Britain, house prices act as a one-way valve, encouraging people to move northwards in search of a higher quality of life, but impeding those who prioritise higher wages from moving in the opposite direction.

This results is what Watling calls a “surplus of ‘trapped’ labour” that keeps wage levels low in the North. This is the trouble with saying ‘not in my backyard’ — it’s not just your backyard that’s affected.

Of course, not all nimbys are Remain-voting liberals. Many are dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries. But there’s something especially repellent about people who preach about openness without practicing it where it matters.

In particular, a liberal immigration policy means that millions more people will come to work here each decade. So where are they going to live?

As I’ve argued before, there’s no way we can absorb that many new people unless small cities like Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton agree to become big cities.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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