Whether it is a drug rehabilitation centre or a social housing development, project leaders can struggle to win local support if the cause is subject to hysteria. Simeon Brody reports on how some schemes have allayed residents’ fears and silenced the Nimbys
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be drug and alcohol centres. Of course there should be,” says councillor Terry Cutmore, who helped block the opening of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Ashingdon, Essex, last year.
“But the positioning of them and where they stand in any community is another problem that needs attention. The actual house this was going to go in was a listed building and right behind the building was a church hall used by a play group. This would be right in the middle of a community,” says Cutmore, leader of Rochford Council.
Rochford’s councillors rejected their officers’ advice and refused planning permission for the scheme after receiving a 1,000-signature petition from residents. The decision was later backed by a planning inspector but the experience of facing widespread local opposition must be familiar to anyone attempting to develop a new project for drug users, rough sleepers, asylum seekers or any other unpopular group.
It would be easy to dismiss all opponents of such schemes as Nimbys, who would oppose any new development close to home, but Cutmore insists that in this case the site was simply unsuitable.
In May, communities secretary Ruth Kelly found herself perhaps underestimating the complexity of the problem. Days after attacking Nimbys for blocking social housing developments, it was discovered that she was opposing six new housing schemes in her Bolton West seat.
National Housing Federation policy officer Sue Ramsden says Nimbyism has long been a problem for social housing providers, particularly those catering for unpopular groups. “There’s a fear based on ignorance. People don’t mind these things existing but they just don’t want them existing next to them.”
Paul Corry (pictured left), head of public affairs at mental health charity Rethink, says Nimbys are most likely to target housing projects or schemes requiring a new building -Êand have developed a more sophisticated approach. He says: “These days they are very rarely about ‘we don’t want mad people in our road'; they tend to be about ‘opening this service will create more traffic’ or ‘this is quite close to a number of different schools’. It’s more discrimination by innuendo than direct discrimination.”
One example of this more subtle form of protest occurred in Bicester, Oxfordshire, in 2003 when residents opposed the opening of an asylum accommodation centre.
Their line was not based on tabloid press hysteria, but on the ostensibly humane grounds that the town had few people from ethnic minorities and the claimants would be isolated there. Eventually, the Home Office scheme was abandoned.
Three years ago Rethink ran into conflict over one of its proposed projects. Instead of talking to residents and providing them with information beforehand, Rethink called a public meeting. “We got every hothead in the street coming along shouting and screaming,” Corry says. This reaction prompted councillors to scrap the plans.
But Rethink does usually overcome local opposition and has been particularly successful in promoting the economic benefits of a scheme to the local community: for example, the fact that, like local people, service users spend their money in local shops, says Corry.
But sometimes local shops are the main opponents. Charity Addaction faced opposition to its plans to open a drug treatment centre, including a needle exchange, in a primarily commercial part of Walsall. Local shops were concerned about the effect on their businesses and the impact that drug services could have on the area, says Hugh Jobber, the project’s service manager.
Several nightmare scenarios were doing the rounds, including the spectre of addicts driving round on motorbikes terrorising local mothers or young people being drawn into a life of drugs. “[People feared] a drug service was about to create a problem that didn’t exist rather than seeking to reduce the demand for drugs,” says Jobber.
“There was a lot of fear, fed by media imagery of drug use and drug users.”
But the charity did not cave in and set about gathering a coalition of people who backed the project, including the families of drug users. Jobber placed anonymised stories in the local press about how parents wanted somewhere to take their son or daughter for help with their heroin problem. “We were trying to humanise the issue – that worked pretty well,” he says.
The contribution made by the families of service users at the council meeting where the project’s planning application was discussed proved invaluable. “The emotional response did swing the day,” says Jobber.
But sometimes it is impossible to persuade everyone and it then becomes a matter of reducing flashpoints. Once the project opened, Jobber made sure there were regular sweeps for needles to prevent any opposition building again.
Local concern also needed to be allayed in Bracknell, Berkshire, before supported housing provider Look Ahead could open its Rainforest Walk project for homeless young people. The 20-bed scheme was to be opened close to a similar project and news of the planning application prompted strong local opposition.
“There were questions to the council about why there needed to be two projects in the same place,” says David Haugh, the project’s senior contracts manager. “It was more based on the issues of not knowing what type of project it was likely to be. Initially, rumours were banded around. That’s where it’s useful to create a relationship with the local community and break down some of the fears and misconceptions about the client group.”
Look Ahead provided reassurance about how they would manage any problems that might arise and explained they were providing support to people who were vulnerable and homeless and already members of the community. Coffee evenings were organised in which residents met some of the young people, who also organised an exhibition of their photography. Residents who had been won over could then act as conduits to the rest of the community and bring other people on board. The strategy worked so well that some of those who had opposed the project have now become volunteers, giving up their time to help the young people they initially sought to reject.
“At first we didn’t want them,” says resident Pat Ridley. “We felt it was the wrong place for the project. But when we met them and they met us the relationship changed. We have an understanding of the young people and the lives they’ve had and we are helping them move on and live in the community.”
Ridley volunteers at the project, taking craft lessons twice a month. And the links with the community have had positive spin offs for the service users too, with one woman being offered a job at a nursery by a teacher she met while helping out at the local school fete. Contact with residents also makes the young people more aware of the effect their actions can have on the community, such as playing loud music.
Mental health charity Together also believes its efforts to build a reputation as a good neighbour in its 40 care homes can bear fruit. Projects seek representation on local groups and residents are invited to events held at the schemes.
Head of public affairs Martin Ball says where positive relations are established residents look out for service users if they are having problems in the street, thereby reducing their feeling of social exclusion. Once residents familiarise themselves with the service users, they will see them in the pub or supermarket and attitudes change.
“We are part of these communities as much as anybody else,” Ball says.
Rise of the nimby
It was Nicholas Ridley, environment secretary in the Thatcher government, who propelled the term Nimby into popular usage in Britain.
In the late 1980s he mocked those who protested against new developments as selfish Nimbys – an acronym for “not in my back yard”.
Like Labour’s Ruth Kelly (see main story), Ridley fell victim to the same charge as the one he levelled at others when he opposed a housing development that may have intruded on the view from his Cotswold home.