Rachel Reeves is hopelessly naive if she thinks she can beat Britain’s Nimbys

Rachel Reeves
God help Rachel Reeves and her Labour colleagues when they try to take on the Shires - Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Oh Rachel! You are in for such a shock. I have to hand it to you: you really rock hard hats and hi-vis vests. You are the first Chancellor of the Exchequer not to look a complete muppet on a construction site. That visit to a housing development near the Oval cricket ground on day one of your first week at the Treasury had all the right optics: you certainly look and sound as if you mean business.

Unfortunately, when it comes to your mission to get Britain housebuilding, I fear you have no idea what is coming your way. As you prepare to paint the green belt grey, you are about to confront the most ferocious foe on the planet: massed ranks of Nimbys. Announcing your intention to rip up the planning system, you may think you have dropped the Mother of All Bombs, but the enemy is prepared. Defeating them will take much more than a steely expression and concrete-sounding resolve.

Yours is, of course, a righteous cause. If this country is to continue importing millions of people – and the effective amnesty for more than 100,000 asylum seekers on day one of the new Labour government is a pretty strong hint as to what’s to come – they will need somewhere to live. But building 821 new homes a day – one every two minutes – would be stunningly ambitious, even if everyone, everywhere, welcomed the move.

The truth is that many, if not most, don’t, and they are ready to fight. Like the Taliban, these guerrilla warriors know their terrain; have developed deadly weapons; and lurk in the most unexpected places. They maintain constant vigilance over planning applications great and small and are always ready to mobilise. Simple proposals for kitchen extensions and loft conversions is all it takes. Any hint of Taylor Wimpey in the neighbourhood or anywhere they holiday, and it’s all-out war. Like their Afghan equivalents, they protect their territory at all costs and they never give up.

I should know. In recent years, I’ve been involved in multiple planning applications. Each and every one has been an absolute nightmare. At one end of the scale, obtaining permission to build 115 houses in Scotland (where the government purports to want more people) was an exhausting ordeal which took longer than Brexit. After thousands of hours of unpaid effort, it was very nearly kiboshed by the pandemic. At the other end of the spectrum, the installation of a 2m x 1m skylight on a flat roof to make a dingy flat lighter generated an astonishing fuss. The redoubtable red-trousered resisters approached this small pane of glass – visible only to the occupant – with all the fire and fury required to thwart a nuclear power plant.

If Reeves thinks 300 additional planning officers are a match for this lot, she is hopelessly naïve. Add a zero, and it still wouldn’t be enough. If simple modifications of this kind trigger multiple email exchanges; expert opinions; and not one but two “site visits” by publicly paid officials, what hope is there for the scale of development Reeves has in mind?

Were it not so inimical to the economic growth the new government says it is determined to achieve, there would be something quite magnificent about the energy and commitment of those who set out to block development. Just imagine what could be achieved were their tremendous efforts and expertise directed at something positive.

In fairness, by no means all of what they do is bad. We have the traditional Conservative-voting cavalry of bored retirees, with their minute knowledge of planning case law and “heritage consultants” on speed dial, to thank for the fact that so much of this country has not been despoiled. All these curtain-twitchers provide an outstanding surveillance service, springing into action the second a ladder or site notice appears. Nobody wants high density cheap housing in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; community opposition acts as a healthy check on corporate greed.

The problem is that the formidable fighting machine only has one setting: search and destroy. Having long been indulged by poorly resourced, process-driven, box-ticking local government departments, the complainers are neither willing nor able to distinguish between what is harmless and necessary and development of the wrong kind. Worse, the most active opponents of local development often turn out to be Lib Dems or Greens, who appear entirely oblivious to their rank hypocrisy.

These Left-wing voters love the idea of open borders and rail against incarcerating illegal immigrants in detention centres. They even consider hotel accommodation for asylum seekers to be “inhumane.” But new social housing on their doorstep? No way! Just watch them cry bats and greater crested newts. Should the possible presence of those protected species not work, there’s always another ruse, from some spurious climate change related anxiety to “overwintering seabirds.”

With the reintroduction of mandatory housebuilding targets and various ominous sounding “National Frameworks”, Reeves boasts that her new government has done more to unblock the planning system in 72 hours than the Tories did in 14 years.

She and her Cabinet colleagues have certainly made a lot of noise. Perhaps they will manage a few apartment blocks on old car parks and other brownfield sites. But God help them when they try to take on the Shires.