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It's A Mann's World: Not in my back yard

BY Olly Mann

3rd Jan 2023 Life

It's A Mann's World: Not in my back yard

This month, Olly Mann squares up to a new enemy—planning applications in his neighbourhood

I think I might be a NIMBY. This is rather hard for me to accept, because that acronym (Not In My Back Yard) is typically used as a slur; a pejorative label deployed to smear someone as selfish and two-faced. I even recall when I first heard the word—in a school geography class, some thirty years ago.  

The way my teacher explained it was that UK property developers are frequently frustrated by hypocritical homeowners, who claim to be in favour of progress (new housing, wind farms, whatever), but then vociferously object when actual proposals emerge to develop such things in their postcodes. How parsimonious, I thought! How self-centred! 

As a young adult I lived in London, so never had cause to revise my opinion. Planning disputes were something I encountered only as a sidebar in the Evening Standard: a rockstar wanting to build a swimming pool in their cellar, or a corporation applying to erect an even taller skyscraper than the one across the street. Nothing that affected me, nor gave me cause for soul-searching. 

Moving to the Green Belt

But then I moved to the Green Belt. Our three-bed semi—the first house I bought, and the one I intend to still call home when I die—is surrounded by fields, and situated in the first Hertfordshire village you come to as you head out of London up the A1. 

It is, in some ways, an undesirable place to live. It is poorly served by public transport, the school is clearly cash-strapped and the community spirit is less enthusiastic than in the satellite towns and cities, which (perhaps due to being an inch further away from London) seem more confident in their identities. 

Hertfordshire

Olly Mann's Hertfordshire home is a green oasis 

But, as I say, we are surrounded by fields. Look out the front of my gaff, and there is green space as far as the eye can see—well, until your gaze hits the blurry buzz of the M25, humming away in the far distance. Look out the back, and you see nothing man-made at all, unless the farmer is taking out his combine harvester. 

The view was the reason we bought here. It is the only reason we bought here. We drove through the endless tedious suburbs of Greater London and hit upon this oasis of green and calm and charm—and it felt like magic. Thanks to protective planning regulations devised decades ago, here was a place where an authentic rural identity had been kept alive: the quiet beauty of the shrubs, the horses, the haybales, the spinney. We were seduced. 

"Here was a place where an authentic rural identity had been kept alive"

We could, of course, have headed perhaps 40 minutes further north, and settled upon another similar-looking village with less existential threat of being swallowed up by the metropolis. But then, that wouldn’t be the same at all, would it? Our village’s proximity to London is the precise thing that elevates it above and beyond its aesthetically attractive qualities: the fact it might one day be demolished and turned to concrete is what makes it most special. It’s not just a place you live in. It’s a place you feel an urge to protect. 

Becoming a NIMBY

Back in the mid-20th century, there were two large mental hospitals bookending the village, located here to offer refuge and respite to troubled Londoners, who could come and breathe country air whilst remaining near their relatives. This land has since been developed into housing estates, but I (romantically) reckon their environs still offer mental support to people oppressed by life in the capital’s sprawl. Travel just five miles out the ‘burbs, and you can traverse our pretty footpaths, and be amongst the sheep, the woodland and the chestnut trees. Green belt countryside isn’t just for those of us who live in it, and the animals who depend on it; it makes an ongoing health contribution to city-dwellers too. 

Being out in nature can be good for your mental health

Getting out in nature is good for your mental health

Yet the Planning Applications come thick and fast. On a seemingly weekly basis, some leaflet drops through my door from local campaigners protesting 177 houses here, 231 houses there, a new "garden village" in our nexus, a "residential community" on the meadow, each application abandoning prior commitments to preservation or biodiversity. I always sigh, put these "NIMBY" flyers on our kitchen table, and attempt to appraise them properly, rather than just write a knee-jerk complaint to the Council. After all, new houses need to be built somewhere, right? Perhaps this proposal…isn’t too bad? 

"It’s because it’s In My Back Yard that I understand what the exact impact would be"

And, if we didn’t live where we do, these plans wouldn’t upset me. It’s because of their intention to build so close to my property—In My Back Yard—that I’m so acutely aware of the irreversible changes such developments would bring. So, I inevitably add my signature to the protests.  

It’s because it’s In My Back Yard that I understand what the exact impact would be of hundreds more cars, more unaffordable homes and increased pressure on local services.  

It’s because it’s In My Back Yard that I fight to maintain the appeal of the home we bought; not solely for us, but so that its future occupants might feel as happy as we do.  

What’s so ignoble about that? 

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