Rethinking NIMBYism

Amber Rudd, the new Energy Secretary, has set out her plans to fulfil the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to end subsidies for onshore wind, and to give local communities the final say on new windfarm applications. Rudd, a junior Energy Minister in the last government under Lib Dem Ed Davey, is seen by many as a moderniser within the Conservative Party on climate change, compared to notable sceptics such as Owen Paterson.

The new Government’s approach to give local authorities and communities more say over wind farm construction in their area is similar to the Coalition’s localism agenda in housing, where communities have been given more say. However, in the case of housing, local authorities and communities have been given financial incentives to build more homes through the New Homes Bonus and the Community Infrastructure Levy.

It remains to be seen whether such funding will be forthcoming with onshore wind. For some, this would constitute the very subsidies the Conservatives pledged to remove. However, they reflect responses to very different types of market failure. Subsidies paid to energy companies distort the market, promoting otherwise unprofitable investments. Compensating communities is simply a way to account for unavoidable inequities in the distribution of the costs and benefits of such developments.

However, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of financial incentives in overcoming local opposition to new developments. Much of the more recent literature on NIMBYism questions the assumption it is always a result of individual self-interest. In many cases, it reflects wider concerns about the non-financial impacts of new developments on the community, such as aesthetics. In some cases, the assumed hypocrisy between what people believe the country needs and what they will accept for their own area simply doesn’t exist, rendering NIMBYism a misleading term.

A new YouGov survey demonstrates some of the misconceptions around NIMBYism and the limits of compensation, even in a hypothetical scenario, taking the example of fracking. 41% of respondents oppose fracking in Britain generally, while 35% support it. When asked if they would support it in a town or village near them, this changes to 49% opposing, and 27% supporting. This is a tiny swing of just 4% of all respondents who moved from support to opposition when asked about their own area.

In a real-life example, the swing might be higher, but even among the switchers, many may have consistent reasons for opposing fracking near them. For example, they might believe that fracking should be allowed, but only in rural areas that aren’t particular areas of natural beauty. If you live in a big city or the Lake District, it wouldn’t be hypocritical to believe that Britain should start extracting shale gas, but not in your local area.

More interesting still is how the numbers change if compensation is given to fund new community facilities. £100,000 of hypothetical compensation moves to a 47-30 split opposing fracking. £1,000,000 gets it down to 44-32, and it takes a huge £10,000,000 boost to the local council’s coffers to get to a 40-36 split – around the same proportions opposing and supporting fracking in principle at a national level.

Giving communities more control over the local landscape is an admirable goal, but tensions with national goals continue to exist, whether in the provision of housing or production of energy. Financial incentives can only get governments so far in alleviating these tensions.

Demos is conducting new research on community-led housing models. The study will test whether active community involvement, rather than the existing formula of consultations and financial incentives, can offer a new route to bringing local and national goals into line.  Keep up-to-date with our research programme by following us on Twitter.