Backyard Building: How Businesses Can Tackle Britain’s NIMBYs

Britain’s NIMBYs have had it too easy for too long. Outdated planning legislation, weakly committed planning targets and sluggish, under-resourced local planning teams have put the power firmly in the hands of local opposition groups. The result? An increasingly acute housing crisis and a critical undersupply in the high-tech spaces needed for the UK to achieve its scientific ambitions.

Party conference season saw housing go back to the top of the agenda, though the ultimate outcomes of politicians’ grand promises remain hazy. What is clear, though, is that the battle to come will not be pretty. Local residents will remain firm in opposing new developments and will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid being steamrollered from on-high.

Caught in the middle – between ambitious national plans and small-c local conservatism – how can developers and investors tell stories that deliver for all involved?

The View From The Top

Recent months have seen the property debate descend into an increasingly lofty game of one-upmanship. As they vie for votes and business endorsements, each party has put forward its view on how best to solve the property dilemmas that have now become increasingly impossible to ignore.

Labour committed to building 300,000 new homes a year, unlocking brownfield sites, reforming the planning regime and building new towns; on the Tory side, Gove’s more nebulous approach promised planning change and a firmer commitment to the government’s so-far non-committal housing targets. Calling for 380,000 new homes a year, the Lib Dems went the furthest of the lot.

Regardless of how much stock anyone is putting in any given headline promise, what is clear is that building is being put at the heart of parties’ plans to drive UK growth. With expectations of clearer government strategy to come, and an increased license to begin mixing mortar, property businesses – after a quiet few years – can at the very least begin to plan for busier times ahead.

The Sceptred Isle

The property world, though, should be wary of rubbing its hands together just yet. Chicken counters will find that, despite the positive noises coming from current and would-be governments, many a more concrete challenge will remain.

Even if changes to legislation make mass-building a possibility, local upset will still pose a very real reputational risk for those that do decide to act. Belief in the need for change does not equate to belief that new developments need to be built in any given here or there, and Britain’s YIMBY movement trails far behind its gloomier cousin.

On top of this, there lies a deep cynicism around the desire and potential of profit-driven businesses to solve social problems and act in the country’s best-interest. The business bogeyman – buying up sites for poor-quality developments, turning a quick buck and upending local communities in the process – is the fear that lies at the heart of Britain’s NIMBY problem.

All In This Together

There is, therefore, a great need for those businesses involved in the development of new sites to tell stories capable of appealing to all involved – hard as that may be.

Used to hiding behind building site fence screens adorned with stock scenes of smiley, quiet-looking children, it’s not something that has traditionally been done well. Platitudes and disengaged talk of community will never build the relationships required to avoid local fallout. Faceless organisations will never be welcomed.

The problems are plain to see. The reason any particular site needs to be built is not. The private sector has a great opportunity to provide solutions to some of the UK’s most pressing social problems, at the same time as delivering to its own objectives. There is a need to demonstrate it is not a zero-sum game.

Banking On Bumpkins

It is easy to write NIMBYs off as unreasonable, short-sighted and irrational but, unless they are shown to be so, reputational pitfalls will remain.

Developments need to be tied to national problems while demonstrating an understanding of the local changes (and opportunities) that can be expected. Businesses must speak to the need for new buildings in a way that is not only locally-cognisant and tailored – that’s a given – but that is confident in the solution, demonstrating that, despite vested interests, they are part of a bigger, more positive picture.

The conflict has traditionally been seen as one pitching locals against developers, but there a wider group of stakeholders on the sidelines. Would-be homeowners, office-less business founders and policy leaders should all be brought into the conversation. Only in this wider crowd can criticism, and praise, be fairly allocated.

Of course, explanation and engagement can only go so far. The best storytellers are still unlikely to generate active local endorsement, such is the depth of feeling property stirs up amongst the public. Goals and expectations must be tempered in this light.

Still, though: understanding and begrudging acceptance can grease the wheels of the development process, potentially speeding up planning applications and, crucially, avoid any wider reputational fallout. The battle to get Britain building can be a little less bloody than we might think.