Blog Post

The progressive case for street votes

This week’s Queen’s Speech was a key opportunity for the government to announce serious plans to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. But while some individual announcements were welcome, overall they failed to go far enough. It was concerning to see recent rowing back on the commitment to building 300,000 homes a year, following the abandonment of plans for planning reform last year. Action to make housing – the single biggest item of household expenditure – more affordable is vital in the context of our long-term housing crisis.

However, there was one item in the speech which progressives should view with interest – the proposal for ‘street votes’. When this was announced, some were surprised by the broad array of progressive figures and groups that had already endorsed trials of the idea. This group includes housing associations, community groups, the chair of the Fabian Society Local Government and Housing member policy group, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the past president of the RIBA, Shelter’s former head of policy Toby Lloyd, campaigning organisations Generation Rent and Priced Out, two of Sadiq Khan’s design advocates, and even Labour’s former Deputy Mayor of London Nicky Gavron. More broadly, suburban intensification is being championed by progressive politicians around the world, from Jacinda Arden’s government in New Zealand to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US.

But what are street votes? Although we will have to wait for more details of the government’s plan to emerge, the idea of street votes has been advanced by a variety of organisations over the last several years. The idea is to give local residents a power to allow more housing where there is a broad consensus. Street votes are only a supplement to existing means of getting planning permission, a way of adding more gentle density where there is support on the street to do so.

Instead of the only option being to seek planning permission on a case-by-case basis, street votes would simply let the residents of a street agree, by a large majority of perhaps two-thirds, to a plan that would allow additional housing on that street, according to a pre-specified design. Notwithstanding reports in the ever-excitable Daily Mail, they do not mean that the neighbours get to vote on your individual application for an extension.

Each property owner would then be free to use the permission, or not, in their own time. There are strict limits to ensure that the overall effect helps the place and does not harm anyone else, including through impacts on daylight and congestion.  And tenants, not absentee landlords, would get the vote, which is why street votes have been endorsed by Dan Wilson Craw of Generation Rent.

With millions struggling under the high cost of housing and now the rapidly rising cost of living, measures to address high housing costs are more needed than ever. Where successful, street votes would produce more floorspace and more homes, enabling money spent on rent and house prices to go further, and reducing the cost of living for hard-pressed families.

Haringey’s Labour council in 2010 showed the potential for what such a policy can achieve. In South Tottenham, housing constraints faced by the Haredi Jewish community led to community leaders, councillors and planners working together to agree a right for residents to extend their homes by as much as 1.5 storeys, alongside a strict design code. This has had high uptake, won the support of the broader community, and allowed growing families to benefit from additional space instead of being priced out of the local area.

Haringey extension

Importantly, street votes give control over the character and shape of an area to communities themselves. Councils in areas at the sharp end of the housing crisis are often frustrated by landowners and promoters gaming the site allocation process by land-banking instead of putting land forward for development. Concerns about corruption are common. But none of this can happen with street votes. The plan will only be passed if a large majority of residents want it to be passed. There is no messy, behind-the-scenes process of political donations and private negotiations between councils, landowners and developers.

Small builders have suffered terribly in recent decades from a worsening shortage of small sites. Many have seen their businesses fail. Our current rigid system of land allocation means that development is typically consigned to a few large, poorly served, car-dependent sites. This tilts the market in favour of larger developers, allowing a few big players to dominate the market. By contrast, street votes could deliver many more micro-sites, allowing small builders to regain their presence in the market and help to train the next generation of skilled tradespeople.

The densification enabled by street votes would also benefit the environment. Suburbs and rural areas generate far more carbon emissions per head than areas of gentle density with terraced houses and flats. Inhabitants can walk, cycle or take public transport to work rather than being dependent upon car use to get around. Flats are better insulated and require less heating than large suburban housing. And street votes could help generate funds to retrofit existing housing with better insulation.

Finally and crucially, the land value uplift created by a street vote would be taxed. When a house gains permission for an extension, its value increases. With street votes, as more generally, homeowners and landlords are required to pay a tax on this uplift to their local authority. This means that if street votes work to generate more housing, this will generate more money for hard-pressed local authorities to spend on the infrastructure, social housing and public services on which communities rely. If street votes generate as much additional housing as some think it might, that could mean billions of pounds more to local authorities.

We should not allow the idea of street votes to become identified solely with the Conservative Party. There are many reasons why progressives, too, should support trials of street votes. There is no guarantee that these ideas will work, or that the government will implement them well – but as long as the policy is carefully handled, there are few obvious drawbacks to a trial. If they do work, they might help many families, communities and councils improve the places where they live, and do something to help the many struggling under the sky-high cost of housing.

<strong>Shreya Nanda</strong>
Shreya Nanda

Shreya Nanda is an economist at a think tank, and previously at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Blog Post

How do we reset the housing market?

England’s housing system has failed. We need to press the reset button on housing – let’s start with planning.

Rampant house price inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings. Tens of thousands of families made homeless during a global pandemic. Our housing system is broken.

You would think given the state of things, that fundamental reform of housing would be top of the political agenda and an obvious vote winner. Yet this isn’t the case and we’ve seen no substantive policy action in decades, with the supply of new homes per year now well below the housebuilding highs of the  1960s and 1970s. Despite being badly needed, the popularity of the ‘not in my backyard’ mantra has made housing reform politically untenable, with devastating consequences.

This problem is most obvious at the local level. While many voters are often sympathetic to the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, they too often oppose the construction of new homes, including affordable homes. Building more homes would help tackle such problems by directly increasing the supply of affordable homes and expanding the number of housing options available to people more generally.

England’s housing crisis is a product of multiple local housing crises. In many of the areas where opposition to new homes is strongest, affordability problems are often the worst. Of course, the ramifications of this crisis are not felt equally. It is often the younger and less well-off residents who are eventually priced out of their own communities.

Building more and better homes is not a panacea. But we must acknowledge it is part of the solution. As Geoff Meen, one of the UK’s foremost housing experts has pointed out, it’s ‘perfectly possible for there to be both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem’. In essence, we are not building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions or ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes.

Once we acknowledge that building more homes is part of the solution, then the next question we must answer is ‘how do we build more’? Part of the answer lies in the way we deliver homes through England’s planning system. While the government’s proposed reforms aren’t flawless, they do present a vision. Significant questions about what these reforms could mean for the delivery of affordable housing persist and they certainly don’t go far enough in tackling high land values.

The answer to these weaknesses is better reforms, not no reforms. We must imagine a better alternative to our current planning system if we are to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

To show their credibility on housing issues, political parties must better sell a vision for a planning system that delivers the homes we need and in doing so, stops people from being priced out of their communities. That requires putting aside the short-term gains of winning immediate votes by objecting to local development and instead explaining why we need to build more homes in this country. Making the case for more homes nationally while opposing them in their backyard reduces the credibility of any national message politicians might have on housing.

The widespread opposition to the government’s planning reforms suggest that they were dead on arrival. That is not a reason to abandon attempts to address the housing crisis. At the moment, our planning system reinforces England’s broken housing market because land that obtains planning permission increases exponentially in value. This makes it increasingly difficult to build homes at affordable prices. Despite this, suitable policy solutions such as the introduction of zoning policy find few advocates and instead, the dysfunctional status quo persists.

We need to build a new consensus on housing. It is time to move beyond the short-term gains and quick wins that come from opposing new homes. Instead, politicians must present a bold and radical vision for how they will address England’s housing crisis. Now is the time for radical and ambitious vision that would improve the supply of high-quality and affordable homes, while also tackling the unfair distribution of homes.  The myriad of problems facing the housing market – from the building safety crisis to rampant unaffordability – will only get worse without action to deliver better quality and more affordable homes.

The longer the housing crisis goes unfixed, the more damage it does. Progressives must not fall into the trap of opposition for opposition’s sake. Instead, they should articulate a clear vision that that explains why the housing market is broken, why we need radical action to fix things and how a fairer society can be created if we get things right. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jonathan Webb</span></strong>
Jonathan Webb

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.