Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The pride and the shame of the Richmond Nimby

What a lovely place Richmond is. I was there yesterday; the view across the Thames as you drive from the high point of the town to the centre is breathtaking, and of course the park is one of the most beautiful and extensive in England. As for the houses, they’re nothing short of magnificent: Richmond isn’t a neighbourhood for the poor or disadvantaged.

Despite all this beauty, I did end up metaphorically screaming at the place before I left it, crawling through the centre of town at less than a walking pace. Travelling around England underlines just how crowded a country it is. That’s been a much-debated theme recently, with all sorts of exciting initiatives by our bright new government to restrict immigration into this country. This could keep potentially several hundred thousand people away, and not all of them will be tortured or die of hunger in their home countries. Of course, this would barely scratch at the surface of the problem of overcrowding. To start to solve that, we need to reduce the population by many millions, and for that limiting immigration isn’t enough, we’d need to encourage a lot of Englishmen to move away too. Incidentally, looking out of my window on a ‘flaming June’ day of grey skies and drizzle, I can assure you that this Englishman wouldn’t take much persuading.

Have you noticed how often a mention of something you haven’t heard or thought about for years is followed by your coming across it again within twenty-four hours or so? You know – you may not have heard a word for ages and then stumble across it by happy chance, perhaps a word like lexicographer, or meet it when there’s no-one around who can give you a definition of it, say a term like serendipity, and then you hear or read it again shortly afterwards.

Yesterday was the first time I’d been in Richmond for ages and it was mentioned on the radio news this morning. Another smart new initiative of the government has been to put an end to a Labour measure which allowed building on areas previously used for gardens. The new government is giving local people the right to challenge this kind of development.

Sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to protect gardens? But is that really what we’re protecting or is it more a matter of upholding the rights of those who live in pretty areas? People who would say ‘I’m keen on cheap housing, but not in my back yard?’ The ‘not in my back yard’ specialist or Nimby favours a policy and is happy to see society sacrifice to achieve it, as long as the sacrifice is made by someone else, generally someone much less well placed to bear the cost.

And this morning there it was: a woman who has lived in Richmond for years but by her accent seemed to be of German extraction (which has a certain irony), claimed ‘I’m proud to be a Nimby.’

This is a brilliant debating device. You take something most people regard as a ridiculous contention and then align yourself with it – you state something like ‘I don’t care what people say, but I think Sarah Palin has a working intellect.’ This apparently legitimises the previously illegitimate and shifts the burden of proof to your opponent who has to start by demolishing a position that he thought had already been overthrown.

Of course, we can follow the same policy as I recommended in my last post and test the validity of this device by replacing a key word or two. ‘I’m proud to be a homophobe.’ Not quite so effective is it? ‘I’m proud to be a racist.’ Lacking a certain charm, wouldn’t you say?

In the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno spoke in a public debate in which the Fascist General Millán-Astray, of the particularly feared Foreign Legion, also took part. Some of Astray’s supporters shouted out their slogan ‘Viva la Muerte’, ‘long live death’. Unamuno replied ‘I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.’

It would be massively immodest for me to claim to resemble Unamuno – perhaps a more reasonable comparison is with the Modern Major General in The Pirates of Penzance who claimed to have ‘a pretty taste in paradox.’ But where I’m with Unamuno is in not finding every paradox attractive. Taking pride in your own shamelessness, in particular, leaves me distinctly cold.


Awoogamuffin said...

That sucks

I'd understood that the new government was actually making plans to give local councils less control over what could be built in green areas, ostensibly to make it easier to build new wind turbines, seeing as Nimby's seem to be hell bent on keeping Britain from sticking to its renewable energy targets. Though maybe those are different kinds of legislation...

David Beeson said...

This is to stop the 'garden grab' that Labour allowed. As Labour are pointing out, by preventing building on former gardens, the Tories - sorry Coalition - will indeed increase the pressure on Green belts.