With the message ‘Yes In My Back Yard’ YIMBYs are armed with revolutionary proposals to solve the UK housing crisis – including plans to allow individual streets to set their own planning rules. Here we look at their vision of the future.
The NIMBY acronym was popularised in the 1980s to reflect those in favour of development – just so long as it was not too close to home. Now a new and rapidly growing movements is taking over – the YIMBY.
The YIMBY is a relatively new phenomenon. Standing for ‘Yes, In My Back Yard’ the movement started life in the US and Sweden, but has rapidly spread and is now taking root in the UK.
The campaign aims to boost supply and make homes more affordable and secure by getting more attractive housing built with the support of local people.
YIMBYs believe that to tackle the housing crisis the planning system needs a radical overhaul to allow cities to develop quickly, but without compromising when it comes to aesthetics.
The movement believes the housing crisis has come about as a direct result of the country failing to build enough decent homes for more than 40 years, and that one of the ways to tackle this is to allow individual streets to set their own planning rules – permitting them to build up or expand out.
This kind of development has long been frowned upon by those in the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) camp.
However, the new campaign claims that, with a country in the grip of a housing crisis, practical solutions are out there – and that new development can in fact add beauty – and even value.
They point to cities such as Paris and Venice, which are densely populated but still considered beautiful.
They also cite London itself – saying that if the city as a whole had the same number of homes per square mile as Kensington & Chelsea, it would have double the number of homes in total.
London YIMBY co-founder John Myers said homeowners need to keep an open mind and stop objecting to development on principle.
He said: “There shouldn’t be any reason we can’t make existing places more attractive – or build attractive buildings.
If you actually talk to people this is their main concern. If you can get people comfortable with the design then you are getting somewhere.
“This was the aim of the local planning regime – but it is quite complicated to get 10,000 people to reach an agreement – with a single street it is much easier.”
How did the movement come about?
London YIMBY was launched in the UK in 2016 by a group of like-minded friends frustrated by the lack of action being taken to address the chronic lack of supply that is fuelling the country’s housing crisis.
Myers said: “We said ‘this is crazy, the country isn’t building enough, and people aren’t happy with what is being built – surely there is another way’.
Why not give owners more permissions to redevelop their homes, extend them or split them into flats? Why would you not do this?”
The YIMBYs have based their campaign around seven core principles:
- The housing crisis is unacceptable and needless.
- Everyone should be able to afford a decent, attractive home.
- We must stop damaging the lives of the young and the poor.
- No-one should be blocked from a job because they cannot afford to live within reach.
- We can make our places better and end the housing crisis with the support of local people.
- We urgently need to act together to make it happen.
- The easiest way to boost the economy and growth is by building more high- quality homes and better places.
How can we mend the ‘broken system?’
YIMBYs have accused this, and previous governments of having a ‘lack of imagination’ when it comes to tackling the housing crisis.
London YIMBY’s first report: ‘How To End The Housing Crisis, Boost The Economy And Win More Votes’ was published this year – after the group spent 12 months coming up with new ideas to present to government.
The campaign proposes three radical policies supporters believe would hand power back to residents:
- Allowing individual streets to vote on giving themselves permitted development rights, to build upwards to a maximum of six storeys and take up more of their plots, with a design code for façades chosen by the street to ensure quality.
- Allowing local parishes to ‘green’ their green belts, by developing ugly or low amenity sections of green belt, and getting other benefits for the community in turn.
- Devolving some planning laws to the new city-region mayors including the Mayor of London. Cities could then decide for themselves if they want to expand and grow and permit extra housing, or maintain their current size and character.
The report claims five million new homes could be created in London alone by changing permitted development rights to allow homeowners to expand or replace homes – particularly as half of London homes are only one or two storeys.
It claims research shows that when residents are asked whether every house on their street should be allowed to add one or two floors, most are in favour, especially if they can pick a design code to make sure that the extensions are attractive.
The theory is the plans are popular as the permission increases the value of their homes, even if they do not choose to do the work.
It is proposing a double majority threshold when it comes to voting for change: two-thirds of those voting and two-thirds of those who have lived on the street for at least three years.
They say this will prevent developers buying up houses and packing them with people to push through change, upsetting existing residents.
Myers said: “We have been out to talk to homeowners about what we are proposing.
“Some streets don’t want to change, and that is fine, but in other places there has been real support for the plans.
“People are really keen to make their streets look better and extend their own property and it is incredibly difficult to do that under the current system. This is despite the fact desire among homeowners is there.”
Amending the Green Belt
YIMBYs say there are small parts of the green belt that are not very attractive and local communities should be permitted to choose to have garden villages, or more parks or better green belt instead.
A parish or other neighbourhood planning community should be free to amend its green belt with the landowner’s consent. It should also be allowed to choose to swap an unwanted area of its current green belt in exchange for a new public park or common.
They say local communities are best placed to decide what is valuable green belt and should be protected and what would be improved by redevelopment and that giving city mayors greater power over planning laws would create a mechanism by which the plans could be introduced and managed.
London YIMBY also says it believes over time GDP could be raised by roughly 30% permanently through a sustained period of building many more decent homes, particularly near the best places for job and training opportunities by implementing its proposals.
A growing movement
Since London YIMBY was established last year two new branches have been set up in Oxford and Cambridge. Work is also underway behind the scenes to set up a further two new groups – although their locations have yet to be revealed.
The research report was well received across the board and backed by a range of professionals, from politicians to academics.
Myers said: “We were blown away by the response from think tanks on the left and right, lawyers, academics, even a professor of economics at LSE and a law professor from Yale.
“The reaction to what we are proposing has been overwhelmingly positive. No-one seems to have any real objections.
“We have spoken to some of the NIMBYs out there and of course they have points to raise…. Have you thought about what this would mean for the homes behind, for example.
But we can go back to them and say yes, we have and we address this in great detail in the report.
“Before we published we spoke to a lot of people about the potential issues and developed ways to mitigate any problems that might arise.
We are not saying this is the final idea, we are always looking at ways we can improve the proposals.”
The Fitzroof Project – a success story
YIMBYs have cited London’s Fitzroof project as an example of the sort of development they are proposing.
The project saw eleven householders in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill come together to submit a joint application for mansard roof extensions across two terraces of Victorian houses facing each other on a street.
Local authority, Camden Council concluded that while individual extensions would not be ‘appropriate or acceptable’, it agreed that if the residents entered into a specific agreement to ensure that all works were carried out together, the development could go ahead.
In its report London YIMBY said: “Under the current system, despite unanimity among the residents of the houses and widespread support from neighbours, it took two years and hundreds of pages of submissions to get permission.
“One individual involved described the process as a ‘nightmare’. It should have been much simpler.”
Supporters of the movement come from across the generations.
Myers said: “Affordable, decent housing is a critical issue for today’s young people and we believe they should have the same opportunities their parents and grandparents did in terms of housing. This is a broken system and it needs fixing.
“However, this is not just an issue for the young. Everybody recognises the problem with housing.
“Parents worry about their children being able to afford a home, and almost everyone knows someone in trouble – there are people out there living in very tough conditions.”
YIMBY-ism in the US
Myers attended the annual YIMBY conference in America in July which he said was an inspiring experience.
He said: “This shows what can be achieved. The movement started in America three years ago, this was the second ever conference and it was attended by 200 people, a number of different groups representing around 30 cities and a state senator.
“Over there, there are new YIMBY groups launching in cities nearly every week.
“In California, they have had an incredible victory, with three new laws passed to tackle the affordability crisis and lack of new development.
“It has taken a long time but they built a big coalition of YIMBY groups and they achieved it.”
YIMBYs and the PRS?
Although affordability and rocketing London rents were among the factors inspiring the campaign, there are no plans specific to rental homes as yet, although Myers points out increased supply and better affordability means increased choice for tenants.
In terms of the PRS, the campaign suggests in its report that streets should be able to give themselves permitted development rights to subdivide houses (which would include HMOs) into flats as counterpart to extending to the total square footage, although they are not proposing any changes to the current rules surrounding HMO licensing.
Myers said: “A high quality PRS is needed to supply homes for rent and we encourage decent landlords to continue to provide high-quality homes for tenants.”
What happens now?
There has been an explosion of interest since the YIMBY report was published and the group is now looking to form an alliance with other organisations to bring its proposals forward – although Myers says it is too early to say who these groups are.
He said: “Obviously there many groups with an interest in the housing crisis and we are hoping to work with them to bring about change.
“We have also been talking to politicians from across the political spectrum and have had a very positive response from them.
“We are pro-devolution and while we have already spoken to people within the Greater London Authority with regards to our proposals, we would love to open up a dialogue with the new Metro Mayors.
“Individual city groups are springing up and we are planning our first national event next year.
“The support for the change is out there. Everyone agrees we have a crisis, now we must do all we can to fix it.”
How do I get involved?
London YIMBY doesn’t charge for membership (although the campaign will accept donations) and if you are interested in its work you can sign up for a free newsletter letting you know how things are progressing.
Anyone who would like more information on London YIMBY or would like to set up a group in their area should visit www.londonyimby.org The full research document can also be read on the site.