Opponents of housing construction claim they care more about the environment than prices
IN JULY 1998 the Reading the evening message, a now defunct newspaper, published an article on opposition to housing construction. Rhodri Hughes, a city councilor, feared the new apartments would overshadow residents’ gardens and “the loss of trees would change the look of the neighborhood.” Last month another local, the Reading Chronicle, published a similar story on housing in the nearby town of Wokingham. Clive Jones, a liberal democratic adviser, is exasperated by the ecological crisis, insulting that the developers destroy the fauna and the habitats of “muntjac deer, badgers, birds, rabbits”.
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The sharp increase in housing construction in recent years has given new impetus to NIMBYs, people who don’t care about development until it’s in my backyard. This month, YouGov, a pollster, found that 47% of Britons would oppose new housing in their area, up from 40% since mid-2019. Some 43% would support it, down seven percentage points. But as this story of two advisers indicates, today NIMBYs cite new concerns: not just “my environment” but “the environment”.
NIMBYWe’ve always worried about wildlife, noise, pollution, etc., says Philip Hubbard, a geographer at King’s College London. And their concerns aren’t just mercenaries: A recent poll by Tom O’Grady of University College London found that Britons who oppose local housing construction were largely driven by a desire to preserve beauty and l convenience of their region, rather than the value of their home.
Such attitudes can be characterized as environmentalism, albeit of an intensely local and personal type. But a growing number of NIMBYs are now calling for a broader green agenda. Some cite biodiversity, saying they support new housing as long as it doesn’t spoil the land teeming with wildlife. Andrew Stringer, who heads Suffolk County Council’s Green, Liberal Democrats and Independent Group (and who built four houses himself), says he’s partnered with residents to get developers to change their plans . He claims to have prevented the felling of trees and the disappearance of barn owls.
tinted green NIMBYs in Essex want land intended for housing to be ‘wild’ – helped to return to a natural state. Elsewhere, they seek to block development by citing its impact on carbon emissions. Some groups are aligned with Extinction Rebellion, an international climate campaign. In Newbury, a construction project of 1,000 homes is contested due to the “climate crisis”. Chesham activists say its carbon footprint would increase by a fifth if planned construction continues.
An environmental bill making its way through parliament aims to protect nature despite high volumes of housing construction. The planners are supposed to ensure that the biodiversity on the plots they manage increases overall. A major homebuilder said he researched eco-friendly housing in Japan and found that wildflower meadows could be created inexpensively. But green NIMBYs dismiss these mitigation measures as shabby and ineffective. One scoffs at a tendency for developers to install nest boxes on homes, which may be unpopular with homeowners because of “doorstep bird poo”.
The Greens’ gains in the May local elections could be a sign that the new eco NIMBYs are sincere about their motives. Jonathan Bartley, the party’s co-leader, said former Conservative voters in the southeast saw the Greens as a party “who gets the wildlife, who gets the ecological emergency, who gets the campaign.” But others wonder if the conversion to greenery is only strategic. Locals may not share his environmentalism, says Wendy Turner, a Green Councilor in Suffolk, but they see supporting his party as the best way to stop new developments. Since 2019, at least 230 municipalities have declared a climate emergency; some activists may just grab a new weapon in the same old fight to protect their backyard. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Eco-warriors”