In defence of the NIMBY

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 6 February 2013 in Diary
A little empathy is in order. Admit it, you would be angry if the government wanted to run a train line across your back garden, says Sadie Smith

If a Great Political Guidebook of our time existed – and the reason it doesn’t is largely so the public continue to labour under the misapprehension that certain lobby correspondents actually know what they’re talking about – the term NIMBY would occupy an inauspicious location within it.

Sandwiched somewhere between climate change deniers, Adam Boulton, and not too far from a chapter on ‘Constituents Who Write To MPs About Squirrel Poo’, the section on NIMBYs would reflect its unhallowed status. Even the acronym – NIMBY – conjures up an image of a couple in their mid-fifties, brandishing a copy of the Daily Mail, and giving their thoughts through pursed lips to a local reporter on the new sexual health clinic or children’s home that’s going up far too close for comfort to their bungalow in Penge, thank you very much.

They are easy to dismiss, are NIMBYs. ‘Chuh,’ we tut to ourselves as we read their outrage over a wind turbine that will slash the value of their property. Who are these short sighted people who can’t appreciate the importance of renewable energy? I think I shall write a lofty letter to the Guardian, outlining why these narrow-minded NIMBYS should read a little more George Monbiot and think a little less of their own selfish considerations when talking about our future energy security. I shall, of course, include my address which will reveal that my quarter of a million pound pile is located a considerable distance from the proposed development and will not, as a consequence, suffer from any depreciation in value. Purely coincidental, I assure you.

Last week, the line of route that the proposed High Speed Two (HS2) rail line would take north of Birmingham was announced. Opinion on whether HS2 is a good or bad idea is divided to say the very least, and I don’t propose to go into the arguments here although for the sake of full disclosure, I’m on the side of the antis, but it did annoy me that many people who were protesting that it would have a devastating effect on their lives were waved away with the flick of a railway engineer’s hand.

They’re just NIMBYs.

Well, do you know what? If someone was proposing to drive a ruddy great train line straight through my property, it’s a surefire bonker certainty that I’d be a NIMBY too.

Were we always so unsympathetic? Either the modern world has sapped us of the human quality of empathy, or we never really had it in the first place. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume reckoned that the state was built not on a social contract, but empathy. Basically, I see you being beaten up or forced to read Kay Burley’s latest chick lit and think, ‘Woah, sucks to be you, dude. That’s not cool.’ By appreciating that I wouldn’t like to experience your pain myself, I come to the conclusion that Burlina and all her works are wrong, and that thugs summarily dispensing fistfuls of knuckles is a Bad Thing. From this comes moral code, which is codified first in religious terms (‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’), and finally enshrined in law and protected by the state and its agencies.

Sadly, Hume’s argument is undermined by what I call the Internet Psychopath Theory of Political Philosophy: give a group of otherwise sane individuals access to a Wi-Fi connection and anonymity and half of them are revelling in their new identities as sociopathic perverts or online bullies before you can say, ‘Come on now, old chap. Have a little bit of empathy, eh?’ Politics undergraduates: you can thank me later.

People with legitimate concerns about their standard of living, a standard of living that many of them will have invested a lifetime of hard work into, should not be dismissed as ignorant and selfish by those of us who will benefit from rail infrastructure improvements or renewable energy investments or whatever. Many individuals rely on the equity in their property to insure that their small business stays afloat in these difficult times, or for their care arrangements in their old age. But this is beside the point: if I wanted to sell my theoretical property in order to indulge in a heady six months of wine, women and song, I should be allowed to do that too because I’ve worked for it, I’ve come by it legitimately, and it’s not up to anyone else to make judgements on how, when, or on what I spend my money.

And don’t tell me that local councils or central government adequately compensate those affected. If this were the case, then those of us who live in less salubrious areas wouldn’t have the municipal dump or waste incinerators on our doorsteps. If getting your kit off for cash was so great and ‘liberating’, more men would do it; if there’s really no collateral that comes from such developments, you’d see Polly Toynbee advocating that they build them in her back yard.

There are arguments in favour of building these things. They may even be necessary. But the rank hypocrisy and lack of empathy demonstrated by those who use ‘NIMBY’ to casually dismiss those whose lives are going to be thoroughly rogered by such proposals is, to my mind, far worse than the perceived obstructionism of the unfortunates who are watching their retirement plans go up in a puff of train steam.

As that chap Shakespeare said, they ‘jest at scars that never felt the wound.’

Tags: Adam Boulton, Daily Mail, David Hume, HS2, Kay Burley, NIMBY, William shakespeare

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