In praise of the Nimby

Essays Published May 3, 2004 in Published in the New Statesman, May 2004

The latest flashpoint is the colour of red brick.

In March, the government-commissioned Barker report on housing recommended the construction of 120,000 new homes every year, to alleviate a growing housing shortage and dampen down the insane spiral of property prices. It also recommended that current planning restrictions on greenfield housebuilding be eased, to make construction faster and more “flexible”.

The government welcomed the report. So, unsurprisingly, did the House Builders Federation. Trying to sound like the spokesman for a charity rather than for a profit-hungry gaggle of bricklayers, Pierre Williams talked of the “serious social and economic problems” caused by rocketing house prices. And he blamed “the Nimby lobby” for the current lack of construction. “They have no interest in the wider environment,” he lamented, “only their backyards . . . Their views are seriously damaging the lives of the moderately paid.”

Since the late Nicholas Ridley, as Tory environment secretary in the late 1980s, first popularised the word, “Nimby” has been the first insult that big developers throw at their opponents. It stands for “not in my backyard” (“back garden” would be more culturally appropriate, but Nimbg wouldn’t have the same ring to it) and it suggests that opponents of roads, airports, waste facilities, mobile-phone masts and housing estates are selfish, short-sighted enemies of progress, prepared to put their narrow interests above those of wider society.

All this, however, is the propaganda of the powerful. It is the whining of the thwarted lobby group, the frustration of the man from the ministry, brought up short in his grand designs by the tiresome objections of people who will actually have to live with them. Often, the Nimby is not the enemy of progress but its begetter. In a land, and increasingly a world, where democracy is bought and where the global trumps the local every time, the Nimbys – those prepared to defend what they know and love against the depredations of the distant and the disengaged – are the true heroes. It is they, not the housebuilders and their tame ministers, who represent the best of what democracy is about.

Consider two recent examples. At the end of March, protest camps along the route of a £54m new bypass to be built around Blackwood, in South Wales, were evicted by police and bailiffs. Local people had been trying to protect one of the last local fragments of ancient woodland. The government said the road would provide a vital economic boost to a poor area. Protesters replied that the boost would be to Asda/Wal-Mart, General Electric and the arms firm General Dynamics, all of which would benefit from the access provided by the road. Irene Jones, who had campaigned against the road for 11 years, was in tears as she watched the camps occupied by determined local teenagers destroyed, and chainsaws cutting down the ancient trees. “I feel that all these trees have been here so long, hundreds of years, and they will all be gone in one moment, and the heritage of this area will be gone in one moment as well,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Southampton, champagne corks popped as residents learned that the government had rejected a proposed £600m container port on open green space in Dibden Bay, a wildlife site with four separate European, national and local conservation orders on it. Associated British Ports, which owns the land, said that a new port was “vital for the UK economy” and had urged the government to ignore the objections of residents, the local MP, English Nature, the Ramblers’ Association, the Countryside Agency and New Forest District Council. When ministers took the protesters’ side, several business leaders publicly threatened to relocate, furious at how local people had stopped them ruining the environment in the name of growth.

Neither of these cases has anything to do with the whining of a selfish bourgeoisie, worried about their house prices falling. This is something much more deep-seated and valuable, something that should be celebrated rather than dismissed. This is the sound of people who care about the place they live in, who feel they belong to it, who understand why it matters and who are prepared to fight for it. This is the sound of political engagement.

When people involve themselves in such local battles, as I myself discovered during the road protests of the 1990s, something wider and deeper begins to happen. What begins small starts to grow, to fan outwards, as people start to question and then to understand the wider political and economic forces that created the need for more air travel, faster trunk roads or larger container ports. Local communities learn, from what is happening on their doorstep, about what is happening in the wider world, and why. They meet outsiders who come to help them. They learn how to fight back, how to say no, and how to think about what the alternatives might be.

They become, in other words, engaged, informed, passionate citizens: exactly what this government says it wants us all to be. More even than that, they learn to turn an unspoken, maybe even incoherent, love of place into a road map for political action.

As I have written in these pages before, much of the world is becoming a playground for the “citizens of nowhere”, a rootless global elite hopping from hotel to boardroom, skyscraper to airport lounge, trailing behind them a homogenised, plastic world of non-places, inhabited by people who could be anywhere at all. As this placeless world spreads, and as progress is increasingly defined as the ability to look out of a hotel window in any city and see the same neon-lit corporate logos, the most radical thing to do is to belong. To belong to a place, a piece of land, a community – to know it and to be prepared to defend it. Here, we disparagingly call these defenders Nimbys. In other countries, the terminology is different, but the contempt from above is the same.

Take, for example, the struggle in the Narmada Valley, India, a struggle that has been going on for decades. The government of the state of Gujarat is building 30 large, 135 medium-sized and 3,000 small dams along the length of the Narmada River. It is described as the most ambitious such project in human history and its supporters say it will provide vast amounts of water and electricity desperately required for development. But it will displace at least 320,000 people and affect the lives of another million. Villages are to be drowned, with paltry recompense to the inhabitants. The dams will submerge more than 4,000 square kilometres of forest. Ten thousand fisher families that depend on the Narmada estuary for a living are likely to lose their livelihoods.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan, a network of protesters, involves hundreds of thousands of people in the area. Many are Adivasis, the tribal people of India, lowest of the low; all are poor. The electricity generated by the dams will not go to them, but to large, often foreign industries, which have come to “develop” their country. The protesters say they will stay in their villages and drown as the dam waters rise.

These people, who would be called Nimbys in Britain, are in India called Luddites and anarchists, selfishly standing in the way of the greater common good. “If you have to sacrifice a little bit of your own to help the society, do it gladly, willingly, smilingly,” instructs Gujarat’s irrigation minister, whose well-appointed house is a very long way from those he is charged with drowning in the name of progress.

In every country on earth such battles are going on, as the consumer machine rolls forward, opening up new frontiers. And increasingly, the resisters fight on a clearly defined battleground.

This is becoming the struggle of the rooted against the rootless; a battle between those who believe that places matter, and those – on the left as well as the right – who see local and national geography as an embarrassing obstacle to a truly global future. This is the struggle of the Mexican Zapatistas and the Welsh road protesters, the Landless Peoples’ Movement in Latin America and the family farmers of England, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the No Airport at Cliffe campaign. Each time, the rallying cry is simple, ancient and deeply democratic: Place matters. This is ours. We decide.

The so-called Nimby, in other words, is practising the oldest form of democracy – the local variety. From the Greek city states through the Iroquois democracies that inspired Thomas Paine and on to Thomas Jefferson’s original vision for the American republic as a nation of yeoman farmers exercising their rights through town meetings, local – direct – democracy is the most primal and ancient form of people power.

“Not in my backyard”, then, is not a cry to be disparaged or dismissed: it is a rallying call to gladden the heart. The yard, the garden, the village green, the town square, the local plot of land, inhabited, visited and protected by those who know it, is the well from which democracy springs, and the bench at which government and its grand projects are judged. This is why politicians, housebuilders, planners, bureaucrats, civil engineers and “global citizens” everywhere hate Nimbys with such a passion. Nimbys have power, and they are not afraid to use it.

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