You’ve heard of NIMBYs but it’s the BANANAs that are the real problem holding the country back - Bartek Staniszewski

NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism) is often portrayed as the ultimate cause of the housing crisis. NIMBYs are vilified on social media, are the subject of numerous articles and think-tank reports and even have a section dedicated to them in the online magazine CapX, called ‘NIMBYwatch.’

Indeed, the political movement for the increase in the volume of development – YIMBYism (Yes-In-My-Back-Yard-ism) – deliberately names itself in contrast to NIMBYism. This is not a niche phenomenon, either: Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer declared himself a YIMBY not too long ago. But it is not just NIMBYs who are preventing development in the UK; new data would suggest there are just as many BANANAs (Build-Absolutely-Nothing-Anywhere-Near-Anything-s).

The idea behind being a NIMBY is to support development in general, but not near to where you yourself live. The underlying accusation is that of hypocrisy; ‘I want something, just not when it does not benefit me personally.’

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And there are some reasons to think that NIMBYs are responsible for much of this country’s housing woes. According to the Centre for Cities, had British planning been closer to the European norm – where local objections are not an insurmountable obstacle to new development – the UK could now have 4.3 million additional houses. NIMBYs are also said to be responsible for the recent huge fall in the number of planning applications approved. The number of planning applications granted per quarter has today fallen by around 20 per cent since the Government scrapped compulsory house building targets in late 2022 due to pressure from NIMBY MPs.

New houses being constructed on a development in 2020. PIC: Gareth Fuller/PA WireNew houses being constructed on a development in 2020. PIC: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
New houses being constructed on a development in 2020. PIC: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

But NIMBYism is not always an unreasonable position. There will be places in the country where more development is indeed inappropriate: either because the place is already very developed; or because it is not suited for new development altogether.

Last year, 46 per cent of secondary schools in Bury were oversubscribed. At the same time, housing in Bury is, on average, cheaper than in the rest of the UK, even when local income is taken into account. It is therefore difficult to blame Bury parents who might oppose new housing development while their own children struggle to find a school place – at least until the school infrastructure in Bury is improved.

We also do not want to be building on top of historic monuments. In 2015, planning permission was refused to demolish the historic Carlton Tavern in Kilburn. The developer did it anyway, with the intention to build a block of flats. They were subsequently ordered to rebuild the historic pub brick by brick.

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With that said, situations like the above are rare. Most places are well-suited for at least some development. What is more, most places are in dire need of a lot of development. Real UK house prices have increased over five-fold since the 1990s, preventing young people from starting families and often forcing them out of where they grew up. Forty percent of women at the average age to have a first baby are now forced to rent, a figure which was less than 15 per cent in 1996.

But it is unclear that the NIMBYs are solely to be blamed for this. New polling data published by the think tank Bright Blue would suggest otherwise.

The polling found that the proportion of people who would oppose any development in their local area is quite small – for instance, it found that only 10 per cent of UK adults want no new housing development near them, even when it meets very high environmental standards. But their opposition was often not limited to their local area.

Of those respondents who opposed development near them, around half also opposed new development altogether, regardless of where it takes place. This was true for all of housing, solar power and wind power development. It means that around half of those who oppose new development are not NIMBYs: they are BANANAs.

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BANANAs are worse than NIMBYs, because, while it is sometimes reasonable to be a NIMBY – for the reasons explained above – it is never reasonable to be a BANANA. Less than 9 per cent of land in England is of developed use, and much more of it will need to come into use if we want to achieve just about anything that we care about: higher productivity and wages, affordable housing, faster and cheaper transport and lower energy prices are all only attainable if we get Britain building again.

Around 40 per cent of our energy is imported from abroad, resulting in higher energy bills, and we build fewer houses per capita than almost any other European country. Consequently, at the current rate, the UK is set to become poorer than Poland by 2030. It is critical that our development levels drastically improve, both in respect to housing and infrastructure, but BANANAs would have all development stopped altogether.

For all the bad press that NIMBYs get, BANANAs rarely get a mention, but the data would suggest that we have just as many BANANAs in the UK as we have NIMBYs.

Bartek Staniszewski is a senior research fellow at the Bright Blue think tank.

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