News and Comment

What’s really going on in the minds of NIMBYs?

Thursday 20 June 2013


Numerous studies tell us that many, if not the majority of people support the construction of onshore wind farms. Yet when specific schemes are proposed, they often meet with considerable opposition from local people. This discrepancy is often explained by use of the acronym NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), to describe those who oppose developments. However, emerging psychological research suggests a more nuanced picture exists, and could offer those developing wind farms, and other major infrastructure a way to reduce opposition to their proposals.

Opponents of major infrastructure proposals, like wind farms, are often negatively characterised as self-interested hypocrites, who wouldn’t mind the proposal elsewhere, but resolutely oppose it being near their community for fear the value of their house will be affected. The depiction is a powerful one, so much so that the term NIMBY is now part of our everyday vocabulary.

At Dialogue by Design we have worked on a series of major infrastructure consultations in the last few years, and yes, house prices are a common concern. We also know however, that a portrayal of local opponents as purely self-interested is simplistic and often unfair. Many express a broad range of concerns such as visual impact, effects on wildlife and noise. Some raise doubts about the effectiveness, safety, or cost of the technology involved.

When somebody submits a consultation response the reasons given for the support or opposition to a proposal have to be taken at face value. However, what if the information given is disingenuous and actually hides the real motivations behind a participant’s response? Recent research by Dr Chris Jones (featured in 11 June’s episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’) into wind farm opposition has provided fresh insight along these lines. Dr Jones is an environmental psychologist from the University of Sheffield and he suggests that a major source of opposition to a wind farm proposal isn’t actually due to the proposal itself, but a reaction against the decision-making ‘process’, which people feel they are excluded from. Dr Jones is critical of traditional UK approaches to planning, which he feels take place without local input and are then announced to communities with an expectation that they should be happily accepted.

Dr Jones suggests that the more participatory and engaging the decision-making process is, the more you can reduce local opposition to the final decision. He concedes that involving local people in decision making won’t lead to those who find wind turbines ugly suddenly proclaiming them a thing of beauty. However, he argues that if people see that a transparent and fair process has taken place they will feel that they have been properly included. With process-based opposition minimised there is greater scope to focus on the technical issues such as noise and visual impact, and potentially to find solutions to address these concerns to the satisfaction of all involved.

The role that consultation and engagement play in the planning system is hugely important; both helping to ensure that people’s opinions are taken into account when decisions are made, and that the opinions which people offer relate to that which is being consulted upon (and not the process of decision-making itself). From being a relatively new concept a decade or so ago, organisations are now much more knowledgeable and proficient in the engagement work they undertake. And whilst there is still more progress that could, and hopefully will, be made, existing experience provides a great place to build from to create processes that people trust implicitly.

The Radio 4 broadcast can be listened to here

Mark Denley is a Project Coordinator at Dialogue by Design, OPM’s sister company and part of the OPM Group.