Nick Faith is the Director of Westminster Policy Institute.
People are naturally loss averse. Take the general election: research into the backgrounds of voters in England’s most marginal seats shows us that ‘security’ was the key word that formed the basis of their political views.
Quite simply, these critical voters didn’t want to lose what they had already – the value of their home, the ability to send their children to the local primary school, the option of seeing their GP within 24 hours, their weekly bin collection.
These people may not have been natural Conservative voters but they certainly didn’t like the idea of Ed Miliband taking over the public finances, potentially in cahoots with the Scottish Nationalists.
That fear of change is what drives people to act; to sign up to online petitions, to demonstrate outside a town hall meeting, to bombard their local MP with letters. A vocal opposition movement conducted at a local level has enormous – some would say disproportionate – power.
Sustained and well coordinated opposition to a local project quite often leads to the intervention of MPs. Eager to show they are standing up for their constituents – and to ensure favourable coverage in the local and regional media – MPs will often lend their weight to a cause. And rightly so.
That is exactly what an elected representative should be doing. However, things may not always seem as they appear.
Research published today by Westminster Policy Institute examines public attitudes towards three major infrastructure initiatives – fracking, airport expansion and housebuilding. Analysing publicly available polling data, the research highlights that Britain is far from being a nation of nimbys.
Local opposition to controversial projects is often over-hyped. While media reporting often reflects those that shout the loudest, there is usually a silent majority who are either agnostic or indeed welcome the development.
Take the current row over expanding Heathrow. At first glance this appears to be opposed by the vast majority of local residents. In fact, research undertaken by Populus at the start of the year suggests that of the people who live in the ten closest constituencies to the airport, the proposal for a third runway has more local support than opposition.
Large scale housebuilding projects are often controversial. Existing residents do not wish to see the value of their own property depreciate. They often do not want existing views to be spoilt. They fear that an increase in the population will put extreme pressure on schools and hospitals.
These are all legitimate fears and need to be addressed. However, the evidence suggests people understand the scale of the housing crisis. In a major poll for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014, the public overwhelmingly supported housebuilding as a way to maintain economic growth.
They were more cautious about new, large developments being constructed in their local area yet the opposition significantly decreased as soon as incentives were raised. As soon as people were offered council tax reductions, cash payments, or investment in local public services, support for the project increased markedly.
The lesson for government is not to simply bulldoze projects through. What is needed is a new approach to localism.
On smaller, local projects the government should continue to encourage neighbourhood plans. This mechanism gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their local neighbourhood. They can choose where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built, and have their say on the design of those new buildings and what infrastructure should be provided.
However, on projects that are in the national interest uber-localism isn’t working. We desperately need a new approach – localism 2.0 – which allows the wider population of a region the opportunity to have their say on a proposed project.
That is why the government should devolve the power to deliver major projects to the newly established city regions, under the leadership of a directly elected and locally accountable Mayor.
Mayors would be given freedom to work with contractors and plannersm as well as a newly established central government Department for Energy and Infrastructure, to find the best means locally to boost support. Incentives would be decided by the Mayor and could include direct cash payments, reduced energy bills, council tax freezes or additional spending to boost local infrastructure.
Mayors would also have the power to hold referenda over disputed projects, allowing everyone in a region, not just the most vocal opponents, to have their say over big projects.
Underpinning much local opposition is the fear of losing something they already have. This is a natural human reaction. Politicians that decry nimbyism should bear that in mind before pointing fingers and name calling.
Policymakers should also dig a little deeper into public sentiment before jumping on a particular bandwagon. The evidence suggests the British public is not anti-progress. People just want their voices heard and that doesn’t simply mean the vocal minority of naysayers.