Richard Brown: ‘Street votes’ could enhance London’s housing supply but bigger solutions are required

Richard Brown: ‘Street votes’ could enhance London’s housing supply but bigger solutions are required

Michael Gove was on fizzy form yesterday morning as he sought to sell his package of housing and planning reforms over the airwaves. “Beauty! Infrastructure! Democracy! Environment! Neighbourhoods!” he proclaimed, arguing that local empowerment would lead to better homes being built and fewer new developments being opposed. Coming from a minister once described by David Cameron as “Maoist” this sounded positively Leninist – All Power To The Neighbourhoods!

“Street votes” are at the heart of Gove’s announcements, though there is almost no detail about them in the draft Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. They respond to a question often aimed at those arguing for the regeneration of social housing estates – why are you picking on social tenants? Why don’t people living in privately-owned neighbourhoods have to densify? To which the obvious retort is, why would they when they would see the pain of new development, but none of the gain?

The idea of street votes, developed by Samuel Hughes and Ben Southwood at Policy Exchange but with broad-based political support, is to put in place a framework that will encourage such densification. Local residents would be able to prepare plans and design codes for making their streets more dense – through infill, through upwards extension, through demolition and rebuilding – resulting in more homes to meet need, profits for local property owners, and tax revenues for local authorities. Even if you excluded older and listed buildings, the Policy Exchange report estimated 800,000 homes in London would be eligible.

The proposal is not a cure-all for the housing crisis in the capital or anywhere else, but it could be a part of the solution (I was one of the many endorsers of the original report). Street votes align incentives locally and could stop London’s new development being so “lumpy” – miles of untouched terraced housing interrupted by occasional eruptions of towers.

Ominously, some media reported (or were spun?) the policy as an opportunity to veto new development, and the biggest risk is that neighbours are unable to agree how or even if they want their street to change. In that case, resident and council time has been wasted, but people would still have the option to seek to extend or subdivide their own homes. Street votes won’t work everywhere, but that’s no reason to reject an idea that could work somewhere.

The other major measure that has been reported is a standardised infrastructure levy to fund affordable housing, and the roads, schools and surgeries which new homes need but are often a bone of contention for their opponents. A clear tariff for new development would create more transparency for developers, councils and communities.

Background papers to the Queen’s Speech indicate that this will be set locally, responding to concern that a national tariff would stifle development in some places while not meeting the costs of new infrastructure in others. Nonetheless, in the age of “levelling up”, there is an understandable worry that a levy would be used to siphon money away from London, hobbling its ability to build the 100,000 homes a year that government still insists are needed, even though the draft Bill underlines that the levy is designed to meet local costs.

But the bigger problem with the new draft Bill is what it doesn’t do. Stripped out since the Planning White Paper is any idea of a national system of zoning, by which councils and communities would identify the sites for new development and agree the design codes that would manage this. Like standardised tariffs, these were intended put in place up-front public consultation rather than scheme-by-scheme negotiation, which favours larger housebuilders with deep pockets and serried ranks of consultants to support them.

Gone too (or maybe not) are the targets that would hold government’s and councils’ feet to the fire. “I don’t want us to be tied to a Procrustean bed,” Gove mused cryptically on Radio 4, referring to the Greek myth about an innkeeper who would stretch his guests to fit his bed, or lop bits off until they did, although a government spokesman later confirmed that the national target of 300,000 homes in England per year still stood.

Enabling local residents to shape new developments, pushing for better design and ensuring that new building can be backed by the infrastructure that makes places work, should help reduce opposition to new development, particularly in gently pushing up densities in cities such London. But it cannot be the entire response to an ever-worsening housing crisis. Even if Londoners become uncharacteristically excited about new development, gentle densification of 800,000 homes in London would not easily deliver 100,000 homes a year. Cities need big plans, as well as thousands of small ones.

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