Let’s give Londoners the right to build more homes in their own streets

Let’s give Londoners the right to build more homes in their own streets

Would you like to double your house price, at no cost to you? If so, we think we can help.

What if we let Londoners take back control of their own streets? Could we get prettier, friendlier, more walkable streets, while making their residents better off, adding many more homes and starting to end the housing crisis? Could we make London fairer? We’re going to find out.

History is full of homeowners who struck gold by adding more homes on their plot. Do you think buildings in Soho or Fitzrovia were originally that height? Of course, going even further back, they were all green fields once, and then forest before that.

It’s true that the grandest serried ranks of gorgeous terraces are on the Bedford, Grosvenor, and other great landed estates. They set design codes to make sure multiple builders on different plots delivered for consistent beauty. No individual homeowners benefitted there, though plenty of prospective buyers and renters did.

But many other parts of London have been renewed piecemeal over centuries. And there’s no reason why a community couldn’t agree on a design code with the grandeur of a Regency terrace, if that’s what they really want.

Many homeowners have already struck gold, certainly. The last 70 years have seen a rise in house prices unprecedented since records began in 1290.

Some would argue that we shouldn’t do anything to make any homeowners better off, even if doing so will result in more truly affordable housing over time and will start a gathering movement that could ultimately end the housing crisis and hugely reduce inequality.

We think that neglects the politics. The government explicitly told the Letwin Review it wanted house prices to rise. Homeowners are two-thirds of UK voters. If we want to get change, we need to get their attention – unless we wait (possibly a long time) for a government with a very different attitude, that will actually build homes in the right places.

We’re not willing to wait for a hope that may never come. We’re a grassroots campaign acting for young people suffering from insecurity and high housing costs right now. The housing crisis destroys opportunities for the young and the poor, not to mention causing incredible inequality and economic damage.

Nor are we willing to wait for a “rebalancing” of jobs away from London that has never been delivered despite eighty years of promises and eye-watering differences in rents. If you’re serious about rebalancing, would you like to move the capital to Manchester? I thought not. Or if you would, please tell us how to convince everyone else. Because no other politically feasible way to “rebalance” has worked, except pricing the young and the poor away from life chances until eventually they are forced to take worse-paid jobs with less training and fewer career prospects somewhere else. That’s no rebalancing that we want any part of.

So we’ve decided to take action. We’re launching a trial, also featured in the Sunday Times, calling for homeowners who’d like to be able to pick a design code for their street and give their whole street permissions to add more housing.

Most of London is pretty sprawling. Half of the homes are in buildings of only one or two floors. This amazing map EMU Analytics created for us shows how the beautiful places like Bloomsbury that tourists fly to see have five to ten times as much housing per acre as most of the rest of London. We have plenty of room to add many more homes and make our streets better, if we want to.

You can take a typical 1930s semi-detached house, for example – whose front garden has often been concreted over for parking – and build multiple handsome terraced houses of five or six floors on that plot like the Georgians, split into maisonettes as wanted, or combine two or more plots and build glorious mansion blocks like the Edwardians. You can have sunlit roof gardens and balconies bejewelled with greenery instead of tiles seen only by pigeons.

Londoners have mainly forgotten the shabby huts and cramped dwellings that most of our predecessors squatted in, many people per room. Few of those buildings have survived, and the rest are altered beyond recognition. Judith Flanders’ The Making of Home tells how much has changed and improved over 500 years. But that improvement has nearly ground to a halt.

We seem to have lost the ambition to take unremarkable structures and create magical, beautiful, walkable, more friendly streets, with room for more people to support local shops and pubs and to join local communities.

Just getting planning permission to do that can double or treble your house price. But it’s almost impossible to get because the neighbours scream blue murder. That’s why the Mayor’s new policy to give planning permissions on small sites has caused a massive backlash.

But what if most of the residents on a street wanted those permissions, with careful designs to prevent harming other streets? Then you can add an incredible amount of value, and an incredible number of new homes. Over time that will help bring down rents and make housing more affordable for everyone.

We’ll never get everyone to agree, of course. Unanimity is impossible. If we can get support from two-thirds of people on a street we’ll go ahead.

What’s more, no-one has to use the permissions; you can just sit on them and then use them when you want. Or team up with a small builder and get a new house and a pot of cash. Or just sell to that same small builder and move to a similar house on another street, with lots of money left over to help your kids or grandkids buy their own places or to use as a pension. It may take a while to get back to a consistent streetscape, but there’s no need to force everyone to do it at once. The Georgians didn’t, nor the Victorians or Edwardians.

Senior politicians and officials told us we need a trial. We have an amazing group of volunteer architects keen to prove what they can do.

Do you know someone in suburbia who’d be interested in doubling their property price by getting permission to add more homes and make their street better as homeowners of old did? Please ask them to contact us.

Let’s put substance behind the “London Is Open” slogan, by ensuring abundant homes for Londoners and those who want to join them. If we can do that while making London an icon of fairness and beauty again, who cares if we make some homeowners massively better off along the way as the price of doing it? Our team of volunteer architects stands ready to help. There’s no commitment and no cost to you. Please just get in touch to find out more.

John Myers is co-founder of London Yimby, a campaign for building more homes. Read more about it here. This is John’s second piece for On London. His first is here.

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