Where wooded hills slope down to a tranquil Buckinghamshire vale, the tiny village of Bow Brickhill waits for the peace to be shattered by the growl of JCBs carving a gash through its fields. But you won't find Swampy digging in or troupes of Nimbys waving placards. British Waterways' plans to build a canal between Bedford and Milton Keynes, which were announced last week, have been greeted with an emphatic "Yes, in my backyard".
Typical of those embracing the project is Lucy Skelton, who runs a horse-trekking centre. She is delighted to have her fields dug up: "It'll be very beneficial to the area economically, and for the wildlife, and if the canal and railway take some of the tourist traffic off the village road, it would be lovely."
The ambitious project will finally bring to fruition a 200-year-old scheme to link East Anglia's river system with the national canal network, via the first new canal since 1905. It will cut through hundreds of acres of greenfield and arable land, and be flanked by thousands of new homes, an industrial estate, hotels and restaurants, but landowners and other local people could not be happier.
Ten years ago attitudes would have been very different. Then, plans for new homes, shopping complexes, leisure parks and villages were rejected with dismay, if not downright fury. Nimbys – people whose protest chant was "not in my backyard" – signed petitions and bombarded planning committees with their complaints. Their most startling headline-grabbing moment came with their march against Foxley Wood, a new housing development in Berkshire, when Tory party members tore up their membership cards and burned an effigy of the then environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley.
Now the "Yimbies" are out in force. People are warming to plans to build in their areas, persuaded by effective PR campaigns by developers and delighted to see good design. That happened in Cornwall, when local people welcomed the Eden Project, the innovative environmental theme park.
The project co-ordinator for British Waterways, James Clifton, says people's response to the Bedford-Milton Keynes canal is the most unanimously positive of his 20 years in civil engineering. Take Fred Gartland, a smallholder who lives in Leighton Buzzard, who is enthusiastic about the canal plan. "I'll be delighted if it comes through my land. It'll be great for the environment, a fantastic engineering feat, and good for employment in the area, too," he said.
The Council for the Protection of Rural England normally defends the Nimbys' corner, but it is all for the new canal. Its transport spokesman, Paul Hamlyn, said: "Canals are a forgotten resource. They can contribute to our countryside and as long as any associated development is linked to it, and is not an add-on, then it seems a very good idea."
Water is often the key. It floats projects that would otherwise be stranded on local antagonism. The kind of mixed-use waterside development planned for Milton Keynes and Bedford was pioneered in the Brindleyplace canal scheme in Birmingham, and has also been successful in London's Docklands and Salford Quays near Manchester. Estate agents estimate that proximity to water raises residential property prices by between 15 and 20 per cent.
Waterside locations aside, new projects go nowhere without canny PR, market research and consultation of local people to bring the sceptics on board, according to David Rose of the Royal Town Planning Institute. "Commercial developers are recognising the need to win people's hearts and minds," he said.
Well-packaged, economically beneficial projects are easy enough to sell to local communities. A more surprising form of Yimbyism is the willingness of some people to accept the building of wind farms in their areas. "Clean" energy is popular with city dwellers who like to feel better about boiling a kettle or switching on a light, but usually the rural wind turbines are seen by locals as an industrial blight on landscapes, inefficient and ugly.
But in Wales, Yimbies voted to have their own wind-power project. The project co-ordinator, Dan McCallum, helped to organise a local referendum on the plan to erect four turbines, up to 50m high, to provide cheap electricity for local companies and attract investment. Roughly as many residents of Awel Aman Tawe, near Brecon Beacons, turned out as in the general election – 48 per cent – and 57.5 per cent of them voted in favour of the project. The prospect of windmills was far preferable to alternatives such as more open-cast mining. One old lady consulted by the project leaders told them: "We've put up with dust and noise. I don't mind some windmills singing in the wind." The project should be set up within three years, and local people are being consulted at every step.
Like the people of Bow Brickhill, the residents of Awel Aman Tawe have been charmed rather than repulsed by the thought of new buildings springing up around them. For developers and architects, these Yimbies offer salutary lessons. People can be persuaded to like new developments in their backyard, as long as they are well designed. And provided someone asks them politely first.Reuse content