Britain needs more homes; practically everyone agrees, including Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove and his predecessors.
Knowing what you need and knowing how to get there are quite different things, however, and radical pro-housing policies have repeatedly been broken on the back of public or political opposition.
It’s in this context that the government has announced trials of “street votes”, the Policy Exchange proposal to let residents set rules governing development on their street, permitting additional homes if they wish.
The underlying idea of street votes is that tearing up the whole planning system is risky and likely to be unpopular – even if it’s what we would need to deliver millions of homes all in one go. Many felt that this had been proven by the Tory defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
Street votes are an incremental move that will go in the right direction without provoking overwhelming backlash. This is what Michael Gove is thinking with his Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
The failure to understand street votes as an incremental move that locals can use if and when they like is at the root of most of the objections.
One objection is that no one will use the policy. If this turns out to be true, at least it hasn’t done any harm – which as a worst-case scenario is not bad for an experimental policy.
But there is reason to think otherwise. Millions of British people are suffering from acute shortages of living space, and in the places where these shortages are most acute, they would have powerful reasons to investigate holding a street vote. In some cases, entire homes could be created in space that is currently wasted. For instance, a disused service alley could be transformed into an inhabited mews.
One to two per cent of streets might use the policy over its first ten to fifteen years, according to modelling by Policy Exchange. If they did, that could mean many thousands of new bedrooms, flats, and in some cases new apartments and even entire houses – each time with the agreement of the vast majority of the local community who is most affected.
Another objection is that the policy gives too much control to locals, who are already the dominant force in deciding on housing issues. In a sense this is correct: the policy does empower street residents to enable supplementary change on the street, rather than imposing such change through the planning inspectorate, the local authority, or central government.
But we must also consider who is affected most by development. If homes are built on your street, you can face disruption. It’s all very well for people far afield to judge, but it deeply affects local people’s lives in fundamental ways. Residents around the country would generally be shocked to discover that some commentators believe locals have too much say on the development that affects them.
This objection misses out on a more fundamental point. Change imposed from above has very little legitimacy: people are intensely suspicious when remote public bodies issue decrees about the future of their neighbourhood. The only politically sustainable way to bring about this kind of change is bottom-up: with a mandate from local people, change can finally take place.
A third objection is that street votes are too piecemeal – development happens only when individual residents decide to implement permissions, not simultaneously through a compulsory purchase order.
There is a grain of truth to this point. The permissions created through street votes will be implemented gradually, without the instantaneous neatness that comes through centrally planned development schemes.
In the long run, however, empowering local people over the appearance of their neighbourhoods will lead to a higher standard of placemaking. Existing residents care intensely about the appearance of their neighbourhoods, and understand it better than any outsider. They are highly unlikely to permit changes that undermine the character of their area. Empowering communities is complementary to creating better places.
Previous attempts to build more homes have generally failed because they have been seen as imposing the costs of development on local people, without also giving them control of its form or a share of its benefits. The take up of street votes may underwhelm us, or it may surprise us. It may be a small step, or it may be a large step. Either way, it will be a step in the right direction.