Why is NIMBY such a popular term nowadays?

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I was reading some interesting stuff about planning south of the border and came across a comment by Michael Gove which stated that “When it comes to reforming planning laws in order to allow companies to expand, he [David Cameron] made it clear that he’s on the side of jobs, not the NIMBY’s ”http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/hands-off-our-land/8809714/Goves-nimby-jibe-at-planning-law-opponents.html Oct 2011)

It seems the use of the term NIMBY is being increasingly used despite the many protestations we hear from our supporters about the term.

The government down south have been making contradictory noises for some time, promising both to promote a transfer of power to the people through its localism agenda, and to ensure, as in the quote above by Michael Gove, that reform will ensure that growth is prioritised, as represented by the idea that there should be an explicit ‘presumption in favour of development’ at the heart of planning policy in England.

A similar set of tensions have also long been apparent in Scotland, where the government has promised people more opportunity to participate in the process whilst also insisting that this participation is only welcome as long as it supports the idea that planning should be about promoting (sustainable) economic growth.

There is something very significant about the contradiction between growth and local democracy, and it is well represented by the idea of NIMBYism that Gove invoked to justify the government’s shift in emphasis towards growth. So let us consider what is happening here and how this perjorative term is used by advocates of development (including Governments on both sides of the border).

The idea of NIMBYism (from ‘not in my back yard’) has become a widely used label that effectively works to dismiss opposition to development as a selfish act that is intent on promoting private interests at the expense of the wider public good of development. For some time,  however, academics have debated whether the idea of NIMBYism is a useful concept at all. Whilst there may be occasions when opposition to development does take on a NIMBY character, it seems much more important to analyse who is using the label and what they are trying to achieve by invoking the N-word.

In our experience, people have a wide range of valid motivations and genuine concerns about the need for or viability of projects or proposals.  It is therefore somewhat ironic that, on the one hand, they are invited as good citizens to participate in the planning system to represent their views and help to shape decisions,  yet, on the other hand, if they are opposed to development they often find they are dismissed as NIMBYs whose views are not legitimate. The label is therefore used as a means of silencing opposition in a way that masks rather than illuminates the range of different motivations and emotions that development generates.

A planning system that is increasingly expected by the Scottish Government to “stimulate sustainable economic growth” or the new rules in the English planning reforms that  include a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” immediately therefore create a no win situation for anyone wishing to oppose development who are automatically deemed to be NIMBYs.  This reveals the reality that it is not actually possible for a government to promote both heightened citizen participation and control of the planning process alongside a policy that predetermines the outcome of that process!
As our case studies are clearly showing, development often ignites opposition, and raises a wide range of different emotions as people mobilise in response to a perceived threat to what they value in their local area. With the outcome skewed towards development, labels like NIMBY become an important means of managing the inevitable conflict that follows, minimising debate and stifling real scrutiny of development by refusing to recognise the validity of anti-development arguments.
So the use of the label NIMBY takes us to the heart of an important contradiction for anyone interested in a more democratic planning system, revealing the limits to government rhetoric about localism or participation, and the reality that these processes often become little more than a means of legitimating the predetermined answer to any application for planning permission regardless of its impacts on local people or the environment.


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Clare Symonds

Clare Symonds is the Chair of Planning Democracy.

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