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Seven reasons people oppose developments and what we can do about it

We all know that London is in the midst of a housing crisis. Politicians know it. Developers know it. Landowners know it. And Londoners themselves know it, as rising property prices and rents place increasing pressure on their quality of life.

Everyone wants more homes to be built, so why isn’t it happening?

There are many reasons that supply has failed to keep up with need, but a recent discussion at The London Conference touched on just one of them: a lack of trust and opposition from local residents. Opposition can constrain supply by increasing the number of applications turned down or stalled. Though the stock of planning permissions has grown in recent years, community opposition still hampers implementation, and may well rise as the focus for new housing development turns to outer London in the coming years.

So why do people oppose new development in their area?

A typical response is to dismiss them as “NIMBYs” (Not In My Back Yard) bent on preventing change at all costs and without any rationale beyond conservatism, but previous research identified seven reasons why local residents might oppose housing developments:

Services – In a growing metropolis where infrastructure is stretched, residents fear that population increase will put strain on local services, particularly roads, public transport and healthcare.

Trust – The complexity of the planning system and the vulnerability of development to the economic cycle has led to a decline in trust between residents, developers and local authorities. This hampers communication between the three and makes negotiation and compromise more difficult.

Outsiders – There is a long history of research in social psychology showing that people identify with their own group and can feel that its identity is being threatened by outsiders. While London has always been a city of internal as well as international migration, objections to new housing are sometimes as much about new residents as about the houses they will live in.

Place – The area people live in often forms part of their identity. Residents’ objections can be rooted in the fear that new development will change the character of the place they call home.

Politics – Elected politicians provide an important democratic check on development through the planning process. But we found examples of planning debates becoming politicised, with the loudest protests winning the day.

Engagement – If residents feel ignored by planners and developers, they tend to protest through opposing new development. Tokenistic and superficial engagement often leads to outright anger.

Disruption – Residents also fear the noise and safety impacts from construction. In some areas of London, development is so intense that construction has begun to feel like a permanent feature of daily life.

Though there are a diverse range of motivations for opposition, few sites will attract opposition for all seven reasons. So how can local authorities and developers build trust and involve residents in development decisions, while also reconciling the need for volume with local sensitivities? At this year’s London Conference several approaches were discussed:

  • Meaningful consultation – Local authorities and developers must listen and gain an understanding of resident’s concerns before trying to resolve them. This might include getting on site, talking face-to-face or even hiring people from the local area. It also needs to be backed by local politicians, who should be equipped with the confidence to defend high-density developments – and use the same language as their residents.
  • Avoid short termism – Local authorities and developers also need to be more proactive. Those that make small promises, and keep them, build the confidence and support necessary for doing the bigger, more difficult things in the long term. Trust is eroded by short-termism that goes nowhere.
  • Neighbourhood planning – This allows local communities to set the framework for the evolution of their neighborhood.
  • Mitigating impact – The impact of new development can be alleviated through payments to the local authority, but at best these deal with concerns relating to local services, and none of the other reasons for opposition.
  • Community-led housing schemes – These can help deal with issues of trust, fear of outsiders and place attachment because housing is developed directly by and for local people. For example, Community Land Trusts are increasing in number, they remain a rarity in London where land values are very high.
  • Boroughs leading the way – Local authorities also need to get ahead of the game, leveraging their power as the ultimate decision makers, to set and enforce clear expectations for the quality of engagement from developers – neither can fix the issue alone.

It isn’t difficult to see why housing is a top concern for Londoners. But only by mixing and matching solutions to address the challenges on each site will it be possible to develop trust between local authorities, developers and residents, while also improving the quality and increasing the quantity of new residential development.

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Amy Leppänen is Communications Officer at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter.