Oxford Needs YIMBYs

By Tim Lund

NIMBYs we know about, but YIMBYs – people who will say “Yes in my back yard” – are new. Those who oppose developments don’t like to be called NIMBYs. They are part of the planning process, as local people should be, with a perspective which should not be ignored. But somehow the new homes, transport, schools and other infrastructure needed for the number of people who want to live in Oxford have not been built, making Oxford the most unaffordable city in England. So Oxford needs YIMBYs – local people who can also contribute, saying where there should be development and what sort.

After moving to London at twenty, I return to Oxford every week. I see the debates and hear what people of my generation say on the subject. Some will admit to being a bit nimbyish, but just as many are potential YIMBYs.  Few are as distinguished as another Oxford native, now living in New Marston, Professor Danny Dorling, who writes:

“Often people around me say that they know we need more housing but why does it have to be in our neighbourhood or on ‘our street’. For me the answer is because if it were here fewer people would need to commute by car into Oxford every day; and the schools, hospitals and local businesses would not find it so hard to find enough employees and keep them for more than a couple of years.”

We remember an Oxford where our parents, without being rich, could bring us up in secure accommodation, giving us a rooted love for the city and surrounding countryside which we hope future generations can share. It is still the city of dreaming spires, and nearby sites of great environmental value, but it is also the home of one of the world’s great universities, with new spin-off businesses, where people will want to live as they start their careers. Without more housing, however, the only newcomers able to settle here will be the world’s super rich.

Among experts, the need for more housing is generally acknowledged. Cities can easily grow while improving quality of life. The urbanism and design consultancy URBED, with the Oxford Civic Society, demonstrated that in a series of debates in 2013. URBED also won the prestigious 2014 Wolfson Prize. Their answer to the question ‘How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular’? was an imagined “Uxcester Garden City”, growing out from an established city, and clearly much influenced by their work on Oxford.

This year’s government White Paper “Fixing Our Broken Housing Market” stated that “the cause is very simple: for too long, we haven’t built enough homes”. The Oxford Civic Society points out that there are many complex factors which have led to not enough houses being built, but the need more houses where people want to live is not in dispute. However, too many discussions simplify into whether just one of those possible factors, planning is to blame, and then polarise into whether we need a planning system at all. Yes, we need one, but it needs to be more responsive to social changes.

Oxford is unique, but the YIMBY groups which are emerging in other world cites with similar housing crises – London, Cambridge, San Francisco, for example – suggest how citizens here can become part of the solution.  So Oxford needs its own YIMBYs, who understand planning as well as any NIMBY, but focusing on supporting good development.