A Funny Way To Win Public Support

A major plank of the Coalition’s Localism policies - which became law almost exactly a year ago - involves securing public support for new housing in a locality. But are the government’s increasingly desperate attempts to boost the construction industry and resuscitate the housing market actually working against winning public support?

Three measures, however well-intentioned they may have been to help developers and individual builders, may have had the effect of giving NIMBY-ism new life.

1. The National Planning Policy Framework: although peace broke out between warring parties in the spring, a tone of public distrust of development was struck beforehand and has been hard to shift. The National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England were, against all demographic evidence, caricatured by some in the Coalition and their more old-fashioned supporters as lefty opponents of the government - mud-slinging that still rancours if you speak to members of either organisation.

2. The Extension Relaxation: the decision this autumn to allow home owners a three year period in which to extend their properties by up to eight metres - twice the current size - without requiring planning consent, has been greeted with broad derision in some quarters (and again, crucially perhaps, including those property professionals who historically support the main governing party). Several tweets, within a few minutes of the policy being made public, urged home owners to alarm their neighbours by planting stakes eight metres down their garden - a flippant but prescient indication of the suspicion of development that this will create amongst many people.

3. Possible Building Regulations Relaxation: the revelation that the government is looking at relaxing regulations (in extremis, those involving health and safety, disability access and energy efficiency) may sound like simply getting rid of red tape for those who are building. But it may equally sound like removing protection against unwanted or poor quality development to those living next door to the builder in question.

Don’t get me wrong. I know we are in a country that requires another 235,000 new homes to meet the requirements of our population, and that current building rates are nowhere near that. And I agree with the government that broad public consent, nationally and locally, makes achieving that total much easier.

Yet I cannot see how ridiculing ‘establishment’ groups like the National Trust, suggesting DIY homeowners should be free to build eight-metre MDF extensions, and now possibly reducing the building standards for windows and fire escapes, add up to a reservoir of widespread public support.

Of course, that could be the point. If house building figures remain low, it may be convenient for the Coalition to blame the NIMBY public than the developers and estate agents who, in general, have historically supported the political parties in office.

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