How Nimbyism saved me from Margaret Thatcher

It all seems so long ago now.  At the time of the general election that swept Margaret Thatcher to power I was a first year undergraduate reading Town and Country Planning – although of course, as the joke ran at the time, I actually spent most of my time reading the New Musical Express.

Fired by enthusiasm from studying Peter Hall’s 1975 primer “Urban and Regional Planning” (Pelican,   £2.00 in those days – now in a rather pricier 5th edition), which I had chosen for a school Geography prize and was the only book on Town Planning I had opened before settling on the course, I saw in Planning my chance to become a key player in the enduring post-war political settlement.

It wasn’t an expressly political choice of career.  I did vote in 1979 – the polling station was right next to the local chip chop, and after a healthy lunch of Saveloy and Chips I played my part – although I did rather abdicate responsibility at this seminal moment in the ideological battle for our country’s future by voting Liberal.  And I certainly had no family history in the Labour movement.  My mother was a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party whose proudest political story was that her father had taken time out from his job in the City to drive a bus during the 1926 general strike.

No – I think it was the somewhat grandiose belief that I would become part of the profession that would mould the modern world which drew me to Planning.  And reading again the opening words on the back cover of Peter Hall’s book – still sitting proudly on my bookshelf 37 years after I acquired it – I think I can see why:

“Chucking a planner in the works” appears no bad thing to a community scarred by industrial or urban dereliction, or threatened by a new motorway or airport.  Urban and Regional Planning is a response to urgent problems of the contemporary world: the growth and spread of urban populations; the need to provide new jobs; the renewal of antiquated housing and circulation systems; the conservation of a threatened heritage and the containment of the explosive force of leisure.

That sounded like high status, high value work, and I was just the man to do it.  Added to which I had failed the Cambridge entrance exam, so a vocational course with a guaranteed career at the end of it seemed a very good idea.

What I didn’t have, as a raw eighteen-year-old product of selective education from the leafy London suburbs, was any understanding of what people actually thought of the idea of being “planned” by these experts whose ranks I aspired to join.  So when Thatcherism became the philosophy of the age, and Michael Heseltine peremptorily dismissed the Planning system as “jobs locked up in filing cabinets”, my youthful idealism came under a bit of pressure.

Of course to younger readers of this blog these events will seem like ancient history.  The 1979 general election is as distant to first year university students today as that in 1945, which propelled Clement Attlee to power and ushered in the whole “cradle to grave” welfare state, and more importantly the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, was to me at the time.  But, just like the 45 election, it still impacts on our lives profoundly today.

When I graduated in 1983, after my 5 year sandwich course (all course fees paid by the state, and a student grant to live on into the bargain of course), the heady days of the mid 70’s were long gone.  No more could bright young Planners rocket up the local government career ladder on the back of the mushrooming demand for work on the new Structure and Local Plans.  I was lucky if the Situations Vacant section of Planning ran to more than 2 pages.  Rather like today really.  But I found a job, and before long I was able to fulfil my dream of “responding to urgent problems of the contemporary world” by working as a Policy Planner for an Inner London Borough.

Worse was to come.   Soon afterwards Margaret Thatcher proudly asserted that “there is no such thing as society – only individual men and women and their families”.  What was to become of me now?  Council housing was disappearing fast, the National Dock Labour Scheme likewise.  The miners’ strike was lost, and most of the family silver (in the shape of all manner of nationalised industries) was being sold off.  Surely Town Planning, an increasingly isolated anachronism left over from the post war socialist utopia, wasn’t long for this world?

Of course events turned out differently.  Taking Thatcher’s philosophy of looking after number one as their starting point, people up and down the country said, “Hang what is good for society.  We need to focus on what is good for us”.  And that certainly didn’t include allowing anyone else to come and live in their particular part of England’s green and pleasant land.  No – their interests were best served by arguing that it would be much better to put the new houses somewhere else entirely.  And so the NIMBY was born.  And with the state no longer taking responsibility for the good of society this powerful force of self-interest became the driver of the Conservative party’s post-Thatcher conversion to Town Planning.

So it was that Green Belts, Conservation Areas, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty stayed with us.  And local authorities engaged in an orgy of additional designations to further protect people’s interests – Areas of Special Residential Character, of Great Landscape Value and the like.  But instead of the state-sponsored development which Patrick Abercrombie had envisaged, with New Towns ringing the outer edge of the Green Belts, the only people promoting development now were the big building companies.

In a neat reversal of Thatcherism those very same objectors who were looking after themselves and their families were able to portray these builders as “only interested in profit”, with no deeper concern for society.  And so the Punch and Judy show of Developer versus Nimby had come to town.  And a jolly good thing for professional planners that it had.  Without the two warring sides would the Planning system have survived the general privatisation of decision-making?  I rather doubt it.

I recently had dinner with an old school friend of mine, who now works as a home-counties property developer.  He bemoaned the seemingly inexorable rise of Nimbyism with these words:  “Surely people must soon realise that the country needs development?  They can’t go on opposing everything for ever.”   Well I’m afraid that kind of altruism died sometime during the Thatcher premiership.  Maybe it never really existed at all.  Instead what we had was state sponsored altruism – which spawned Council estates, unprofitable nationalised industries and trade union barons, so overwhelmingly rejected by voters in the 1979 general election.  Either way, what we see in Nimbyism today is the true legacy of Thatcherite ideology.

So what should we do about it?  Well I suspect that Margaret Thatcher’s ghostly advice to us as professional planners would be “Do nothing.  Just keep taking the money on offer from Mr Punch or his Judy, whichever one of them you happen to be working for at the time.”  Because it’s the on-going trench warfare between the two which is in the best interests of individual town planners and their families.  Which isn’t quite what I imagined when I read Peter Hall’s book all those years ago.

  • Rod Hepplewhite

    Well done Tim Stansfield for pointing out another ‘Thatcher legacy’ and once again not a good one IMHO!

  • Rob duff

    As a profesional town planner I could not agree more.

    But as a parent with 3 children & 5 step children, all of whom would like to form a household and own a home, I cannot agree.

    A home over our heads is a fundimental human right that I secured from a Local authority wage when aged 22, but is today being denied our youth by the planning system to suit the wishes of the home owning NIMBY.

    The resulting social crisis, highlighted recently by Nick Boles, includes very late household formation (don’t I know it!), even later child rearing, the related town centre yob culture and massive future personal financial debt for our children.

    Is this really the world Thatcher or Peter Hall envisaged would eveolve from the planning system?

    Is it a world we should all accept today?

    And, why are our children not rioting to rid us of the current planning system?

  • nicholas waring

    Rob – you pack a lot in there…………………….

    Assuming 1. a home over our heads is a fundimental human right ………….
    please advise how the planning system prevents this to suit the wishes of the home owning NIMBY?

    Assuming 2. housing shortage is a resulting social crisis (includes very late household formation, later child rearing, yob culture and financial debt for youth)…………………………………..
    please advise how this evolved from the planning system?

    Do you not consider there are rather more fundamental economic and political reasons why this is happening? The planning system is a function not a cause.