By Griff Rhys Jones,
by permission of Civic Voice and the National Trust
A few years ago, standing on a bridge, overlooking a motorway that enabled people to roar across Glasgow at ninety miles an hour (at enormous cost to architecture and quietude) I was proudly told by a charming Civil Engineer that the desecration I was witnessing had been achieved by just seven planners.
Later that week, surveying the bosky splendour of Prince’s Street Gardens, I found out that the same fate had been narrowly avoided for Edinburgh, by the work of just seven concerned and determined activists.
Thank God for those people.
Nimbyism is good. Nimbyism is hugely valuable. If you do not look after your own back yard, who do you expect to do it for you? The State? The non-governmental authorities? Your neighbour?
There may be martyrdom required, particularly if the interests involved are driven by big nobs with lots of ambition, but go for it. Here in Bloomsbury, the local Camden Civic Society and the Bloomsbury Group have been roundly abused for questioning the grandiose empire-building of the British Museum authorities. In newspapers and letters they were told they ought to know what’s good for them. The scheme will go ahead. But at least the locals modified what was a badly conceived plan.
The museum is still going to knock holes in the north wall of the Great Court. It’s OK, apparently, because its only a hundred or so years old. They would not countenance a similar cavalier approach to even the humblest shard of its precious artefacts, but will forever disfigure the historically important monument that houses them. Beats me.
Now I admit I am conflicted here. I long to see the Museum expand and extend. I want it to have extra exhibition space. But I also feel for the local groups. They have been defeated. Perhaps they will take it to heart. However, if they have lost a big battle, let us not forget what they do as a matter of routine. These are people who will prevent ugly air-conditioning units being plonked on the front of Georgian terraces, or alert us when developers try to stick too many flats into a limited site. Or stand up against rampant new advertising hoardings. They repulse the every day degradations that can quickly ruin any area.
I also fervently support the people of Mistley, who are justifiably outraged that a property man has stuck a long, ugly nine foot high chain link fence across their ancient quay. (I have seldom encountered such a dreadful abuse of the law.) I support the Hadleigh Council and the local folk who want to stop a Tesco dragging traffic into this peaceful Essex town by building a superstore on the water meadows that back onto their river. I want to be out leading a protest against the National Grid’s plans to run a second swathe of pylons across the beautiful countryside to the west of Ipswich. I salute local action. Let voices be heard. Join up. Stand up. Take part. Speak out.
New legislation is en route to allow governments to drive though more grand projects under the guise of emergency and to avoid local complainants like me. But most of the “urgent need” to put in new infrastructure has been caused by the long term dithering of those tasked with planning for it. The politicians had to decide decades ago, and they did not. Now they tell us that we must stand aside because it is “vital”. Hasty, “emergency” action to build indiscriminately sited wind farms and quick fix power stations lessens the value of life for all of us now and for generations to come. The appearance and quality of our countryside and urban environment is a matter of our future happiness. Those who stand up for their own backyard are reminding us that we live in a small country. This back yard belongs to all of us.
After all, it was urgently necessary to build those great sweeping motorways into the heart of towns fifty years ago because of a doomed theory of commercially driven “centralism”. Now we are beginning to see that the green, effective cities of the twenty-first century should be a series of sectioned villages, where we work and live and play, with shops and workplaces intermingling in attractive medieval street plans. The immediate future wants the motorcar banned. It is cities that avoided those earlier emergencies that will thrive. The wheel turns. It always does. The best laid plans of mice and men often become unsightly leftovers. Be proud to be a Nimby.