Giving wards more power to manage new developments is good news, but it won’t be enough to tackle London’s housing crisis.
Michael Gove was in fine form yesterday morning as he sought to sell his housing and planning reform package on the airwaves. “Beauty! Infrastructure! Democracy! Environment! Neighborhoods!” he proclaimed, arguing that local empowerment would lead to better homes being built and fewer opposing new developments. Coming from a minister once described by David Cameron as “Maoist”, it sounded positively Leninist – All Power To The Neighbourhoods!
‘Street votes’ are at the heart of Gove’s announcements, although there are almost no details about them in the Leveling and Regeneration Bill. They answer a question that is often addressed to those who campaign for the regeneration of social housing estates: why attack social tenants? Why should the inhabitants of private neighborhoods not become denser? What the obvious retort is, why would they when they would see the pain of further development, but no gain?
The idea of street votes, developed by Samuel Hughes and Ben Southwood at Policy Exchange but with broad political support, is to put in place a framework that will promote this densification. Local residents would be able to prepare plans and design codes to make their streets denser – by infilling, by extending upwards, by demolishing and rebuilding – resulting in more houses to meet needs. , benefits for local owners and tax revenue for local authorities . Even if you exclude older, listed buildings, the Policy Exchange report estimates that 800,000 homes in London would qualify.
The proposal is not a panacea for the housing crisis in the capital or elsewhere, but it could be part of the solution (I was one of many supporters of the original report). Street votes align incentives locally and could prevent London’s new development from being so ‘lumpy’ – miles of untouched terraced houses interrupted by occasional tower eruptions.
Worryingly, some media have reported (or shot?) the policy as an opportunity to veto new development, and the biggest risk is that neighbors may not be able to agree on the way or even if they want their street to change. In this case, residents’ and council’s time was wasted, but people would still have the option of looking to expand or subdivide their own home. Street votes won’t work everywhere, but that’s no reason to dismiss an idea that might work somewhere.
The other major measure that has been reported is a standardized infrastructure tax to fund affordable housing, as well as the roads, schools and doctors’ offices that new homes need but are often a bone of contention for their opponents. Clear pricing for new developments would create more transparency for developers, councils and communities.
The Queen’s Speech briefing papers say this will be set locally, responding to concerns that a national tariff could stifle development in some places while failing to cover the costs of new infrastructure in others. Nevertheless, in an era of ‘leveling up’ there is understandable concern that a levy will be used to divert money from London, hampering its ability to build the 100,000 houses a year that the government always insists are necessaryalthough the bill emphasizes that the levy is intended to cover local costs.
But the biggest problem with the new bill is what it doesn’t do. Since the Planning White Paper, any idea of a national zoning system, whereby councils and communities would identify sites for new development and agree design codes that would manage this, has been scrapped. Like the standardized tariffs, these were intended to establish prior public consultation rather than plan-by-plan negotiation, which favors large homebuilders with deep pockets and tight ranks of consultants to support them.
Gone too (or perhaps not) are the targets that would keep the feet of government and councils on fire. ‘I don’t want us to be tied down to a Procrustes bed,’ Gove thought cryptically on Radio 4, referring to the Greek myth of an innkeeper who stretched his guests to fit his bed, or cut some off. pieces until they do, although a government spokesman later confirmed that the national target of 300,000 homes in England a year still stands.
Allowing local residents to shape new developments, pushing for better design and ensuring that new buildings can be supported by the infrastructure that makes places work, should help reduce opposition to new developments, in particular by increasing the densities in cities like London slowly. But this cannot be the complete answer to an ever-worsening housing crisis. Even if Londoners become unusually enthusiastic about new developments, a soft intensification of 800,000 homes in London would not easily produce 100,000 homes a year. Cities need big projects, as well as thousands of small projects.
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