Oppose it all: MP NIMBYism speaks to our over-centralised political system
I recently spent a short period of time looking through the social media feed of a backbench Conservative MP (yes this probably doesn’t paint me in the best light, but bear with me here). I was struck by the volume of content opposing development in their constituency over just a couple of months. Perhaps the most notable aspect was the breadth of things that were being opposed: new housing, check; energy storage, check; roads, check and railways, check. All things that there is a broad national consensus that we need yet this constituency nevertheless needs to be ‘protected’ from.
A lot of this behaviour is typically put down to an MP being ‘in touch’ with what’s going on in their constituency, yet it also points to the fixation that many MPs have on hyper-local issues. In recent years, there has been a growing trend to lament the quality of MPs and the scrutiny (or lack thereof) that has been given to legislation, but is it really any surprise when a large volume of their time is dedicated to other matters?
One doesn’t need to look far to find a wealth of resources online as to how difficult an environment many MPs’ local and Westminster offices are. Staff are expected to manage large volumes of casework while also managing their bosses’ involvement in debates and votes on matters of national importance. A portion of this work could be reassigned to a local level.
By entering local planning debates, MPs are getting involved in matters that should really be reserved for local councillors. Does a development of ten new homes require interference from Westminster? Absolutely not.
The tendency that many representatives have to get involved in these debates speaks to the over-centralised political culture that dominates UK politics (particularly in England). The drive by successive governments to talk about localism and then to centralise control of the budgets that councils need to do their jobs has resulted in a perception of powerlessness. If a constituent wants something done, go straight to the top.
The need for a rebalancing is clear. Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be much political will, nor (crucially) the resources to bring this about. Strengthening local government and refocussing MPs on national priorities requires investment in local government to remunerate councillors for their work and to rebuild officer capacity.
Building capacity is only one element, there also needs to be reform to simplify the structure of local government and to release Westminster’s grip on powers and spending that should be administered and decided locally. In this area, the government has pursued a course that while devolving powers has also added additional layers of complexity to local government. This latter tendency (think metro mayors on top of directly-elected local mayors in some areas) has done little to promote accountability and consistency.
There had been talk of local government reform following the 2019 election. Four years and three Prime Ministers later, it will likely be for the next Prime Minister to pick up the mantle. Simplification and providing adequate resource should be the order of the day, I won’t hold my breath.