Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Bribing the NIMBYs

One of the things the government finds really frustrating is that they can’t MAKE local planning authorities grant planning permission. They can try persuasion, and they can ultimately impose government policy (as set out, for example, in the NPPF) through the appeals system; hence the housing appeals that are being allowed on greenfield sites where these developments are being resisted by local councils. But this still delays development that the government would like to see happening right now.

The problem is that elected councillors, fearful of losing their seats at the next council elections, are very susceptible to pressure from vociferous NIMBYs in their district, and it is this that has led quite a few councils to allocate less housing land in their emerging development plans than is objectively needed to meet housing demand in their areas, and to refuse planning permission for housing developments, wind farms, waste incinerators and other such schemes that tend to get the NIMBYs foaming at the mouth.

Now we have the prospect of fracking (extracting natural gas from gas-bearing shale by hydraulic pressure), which is strongly supported by the government, mainly I suspect because of the failure of successive governments since 1990 to come up with a viable strategy for energy, with the result that the lights are going to go out quite soon now unless the government can find a quick fix for the energy deficit. They have seized upon fracking as the answer, like a drowning man clasping at a piece of driftwood. Short of keeping the remaining coal-fired power stations open, in breach of international commitments, there doesn’t seem to be much alternative in the short term, although the nuclear option is clearly the best solution in the longer term. (Forget wind power – it is never going to deliver.)

But here we come back to the NIMBY problem, and the resulting reluctance of local planning authorities to grant permission even for purely exploratory drilling.

Three years ago, when the government decided that it wanted to promote more development as a means, they hoped, of kick-starting economic growth, they came up with the idea of the New Homes Bonus - effectively a bribe to local planning authorities to accept housing development in their areas which they might otherwise have been inclined to resist. There seems to be very little evidence that this has influenced planning decisions at the local level, not least because the NIMBYs can’t see any benefit for themselves in a bonus being paid to their local councils, so they have naturally kept up the relentless pressure on their councillors to resist further development in their area.

It may well have been the slowly dawning realisation among ministers that the New Homes Bonus has been largely ineffective in influencing local decision making that led to the Chancellor announcing in his ‘Autumn’ Statement (in December) that the bribes to accept new development offered to councils (in the form of the New Homes Bonus and the neighbourhood funding element of the Community Infrastructure Levy) might be extended to individual households in areas where new housing developments are to be built. Now we have a similar proposal in relation to fracking, whereby local residents might be paid some form of financial compensation for the disturbance and inconvenience caused by fracking.

No indication has been given as to how either of these ‘compensation schemes’ might work, and I strongly suspect that the government really hasn’t given any serious thought to the practicalities (or even to the practicability) of these schemes yet. It smacks of making policy on the hoof - a frequent habit of the present government, who seem to make a practice of announcing policy initiatives only to withdraw them when it becomes clear, usually quite quickly, that they are seriously unpopular or that they simply won’t work. (Maybe this government should be given the Turner Prize for developing the U-turn as an art-form.)

It is difficult to see how any compensation scheme might work in practice, and it seems improbable, bearing in mind the continuing resistance to further housing development and the virulence of the increasing opposition to fracking, that any scheme designed to buy off the NIMBYs with direct bribes (er, I mean ‘compensation’) will have the effect the government hopes to achieve. There must also be doubts over the legality of such a procedure, especially if (as appears to have been hinted) the compensation for fracking is to be paid by the extraction companies direct to neighbouring owners. How could this be reconciled with the fierce and all-embracing provisions of the Bribery Act 2010?

Ultimately, the government will get its way by allowing appeals against the refusal of planning permission at the local level, but at the cost of a delay of up to a year in bringing shale gas on-line, so as to address the increasingly urgent energy deficit.

I think it might be a good idea to ensure that you have a good stock of candles at home.



  1. It seems unfair to pay people who just happen to live where fracking will be taking place IMHO.

  2. I think you're a bit unfair to the NIMBYs. As a result of our history we have an astonishingly beautiful countryside and we use it well to support a very valuable tourist industry. At the same time, as a result of a lot of bad decisions we have most of our population and economy in the south of England. This means that all choices between the needs of these two are much more difficult than in other countries.

    As to fracking, the Americans are now starting to loosen up their export rules and facilities – initially with an eye westwards to Asia, but Europe will benefit soon. That will markedly increase the supply and decrease the cost of oil and gas. It's hard to see exploitation in the UK being viable in such a market environment.

  3. re-mark O'Sullivan NIMBY-ism is a level of personal content of their environment with no respect to others who may have the same environmental respect without the personal level