by Ed West
Wednesday, 17
February 2021
Spotted
11:15

Is this the solution to Britain’s housing crisis?

Give residents a vote on beautiful new streets
by Ed West
Imagine “the Great Estates”, but carried out democratically. Credit: Michael DeMaagd Rodriguez, Strong Suburbs

I have to admit to being especially excited by a policy paper released today, but then if I’m honest it’s been a quiet few months and my social life isn’t what it once was.

But if you think about its implications, you might be excited too.

Imagine that we could solve the housing crisis, make home ownership affordable for young people again, create lots of jobs, increase GDP by a couple of percentage points, make our cities more beautiful, liveable and greener — and do all this without building on a single square foot of green belt land? Such a thing is made possible by the Policy Exchange paper, “Strong Suburbs”, by Ben Southwood and Samuel Hughes.

It contains an ingenious proposal: in suburban streets where the housing is less than 100 years old, residents would be allowed to hold votes to turn one or two storey houses into dense Bloomsbury-style terraces.

The housing crisis is a classic tragedy of the commons; most people don’t want housing near them because it reduces the value of their homes. They enjoy none of the benefits of new developments, and all of the downsides.

But NIMBYism is also driven by the “design disconnect” between what planning authorities and the public, i.e. people reasonably fear newbuilds that are ugly or wildly out of place. This is again an incentives problem: the cost of a building is entirely borne by the owner but the external costs of its aesthetics are carried by everyone who lives nearby.

If you look at the most sought-after areas of London or Edinburgh, they mostly have one thing in common — they were designed by men who owned the whole neighbourhood. It added to their wider estate’s value if each individual property was beautiful, and fit its surroundings. This is not the case with developers today.

The genius of street votes is that the the neighbourhood design is decided by the street collectively, so incorporating all the best aspects of “the Great Estates”, but carried out democratically rather than by Victorian plutocrats.

Street votes therefore incentivise beautiful architecture, because if I’m designing my own house, its external aesthetics are going to be just one of many factors I consider, while if I’m designing my neighbour’s house it will be a much bigger issue. The authors hope that as many as two million extra houses could be built as a result.

This is far more important than headline-grabbing debates about the “war on woke” or university free speech. High housing costs are an existential crisis. There is undeniable evidence that they prevent thousands of people from starting or extending families, and also push people politically to the radical Left (and can you blame them?).

When the virus is defeated we will want to reward the young people who have sacrificed one of the best years of their lives for a disease that is far more likely to kill older homeowners. And there is nothing they’d like more than the chance to own their own home.

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Tom Fox
Tom Fox
1 year ago

I agree that we do have a housing crisis which is an existential threat to younger people – say those of forty or below in age. I think the cause of it is the vast increase in population, mostly driven by unfettered migration, which has happened since about 1995. We gained about 8 million people in the period since that date and nearly all of it from migration in the Blair years and since. House building over the period was at record lows while we imported enough people to fill eight cities the size of Birmingham. What else would happen but that rents and house prices would rise to grab more and more of the income of those who didn’t already own a property?
Does the government realise this yet? I don’t thinks so. They just invited five million Hong Kong Chinese to come here and settle. Now, I’m a fan of Hong Kong Chinese people. They are hard working, pretty much trouble free migrants, if you HAVE to have migrants, but where are we going to put them and how will their arrival affect the cost of housing?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

I cant answer your first question about where we house any new people (arrivals or our own descendants) but the cost of housing is certainly only going up if we do.

jim payne
jim payne
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Here in the Arun area of West Sussex, we are being inundated with new housing developments. Our small village is being surrounded by new housing. Our local young folk can’t afford them, so we have a steady influx coming in from the London area. Farmers, or should I say Land Speculators are selling off great swathes of agricultural land for building. So maybe do something with our towns instead of high rise building.
Jim Payne

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

Interestingly, the Isle of Sheppey is exactly the same size as Hong Kong. Perhaps a new city and freeport … ?

Carl Goulding
Carl Goulding
1 year ago

A policy paper written by two academics who clearly have no grounding or understanding of the real world and how it doesn’t work. Not something that stimulates any form of excitement for me. First challenge – find a street where all the residents are owner occupiers with no landlords who have got no interest in what the building looks like.Second – find a street where all the residents are owner/occupiers and from the same “tribe”. Third challenge – find a street where all the residents are owner occupiers, members of the same tribe and have the same financial status. Fourth challenge – find a street where all three previous challenges have been overcome and then get them all to agree on the project details such as budgets, programme, appointing builders, choosing materials, colours & finishes and temporary accommodation. Fifth challenge – find someone who is prepared to bail everyone out when the budget gets blown. Sorry to burst your bubble Mr West but whoever paid for that policy paper wasted it.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Goulding

Good points – rather suggesting that the vision entertained by Mr West and his planners is no more than a fantasy. But what about a buy out? There are streets with plenty of unoccupied houses in areas of moderate deprivation; the transformation of a series of such thoroughfares into a salubrious, traditional, classical development, with free accommodation for the few remaining householders, might work in such districts, tripling the number of owned properties and offering an incentive for more such developments. Simply because it is not a panacea does not mean it would not – in some instances – constitute a viable medicine. In my opinion, the problem lies more with the modernist architectural establishment than with the practical difficulties you mention.

Ian Standingford
Ian Standingford
1 year ago

This is a superb idea, but how do you get all the property owners to act together in concert? I live on a “private road” with a dozen or so houses on it. I have been trying to form an association to get the road resurfaced. It was like herding cats. Despite my great efforts, I’ve got nowhere……

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago

That was exactly my thought.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

In Mumbai, freeholders in high rises are compulsorily part of a ‘housing society’ to manage the upkeep of the building. Many, many of these are now part of redevelopment – the society members agree on a redevelopment when everyone unanimously agrees to it. The builder used will typically rehouse all stakeholders while the building is demolished and a new, much taller one with more properties is rebuild. The stakeholders then move back in. Their incentive is, they get bigger, nicer, modern properties which are much more valuable. The builder will flog off all the extra flats built – that is their profit, and how the society members don’t need to fork out anything themselves.

Perhaps a version of that can be made to work for individual streets.

Eg: http://www.redevelopmentofhousingsociety.com/

There are variations, eg:
https://www.google.com/amp/s/housing.com/news/mumbais-self-redevelopment-scheme-2018-works/amp/

James Slade
James Slade
1 year ago

Same old story a report written by people agreeing with each other. It is not in homeowners interest to demolish their own home and become a part owner of block with a management company. Your personal outside space becomes communal space. Your off road parking vanishes. Your children playing and what pet you own becomes subject to the rules of others.

The big drivers of the housing shortages aren’t there currently. London’s population has fallen by 750k and Brexit has ended mass migration from Eastern Europe.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  James Slade

You hit the nail on the head with that. But Ed West has a point, though he makes little of it. The resistance to new build is partly because of terrible ugly design and partly because of terrible construction standards. (Cladding malfeasance ain’t the half of it.) As Mr West implies, the problem is partly the developer has no long term stake in what he builds. We somehow need some sort of carrot/stick arrangement to make developers liable for much longer for defects, but also to give them a stake in any uplift in value (adjusted for inflation) over the same period.

Beautiful housing would not have the current problems in planning terms, especially if density were much reduced on green land developments to get back the concept of a garden city, so quite a lot of resistance ought to vanish at a stroke

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

‘Building beautiful’ is the key. I say this from personal experience. I opposed a plan to build homes on farmland near my home but then saw a new estate – Barlborough Links in Derbyshire – which is of very high quality terraced and semi-detached family houses grouped around a common. The day I visited the common was being used for a brass band concert and it was full of picnicking families. The atmosphere was wonderful, the houses individualised with beautiful gardens. Ever since I’ve thought if it could be guaranteed that the proposed development near me would be like this, I’d drop my opposition.

Last edited 1 year ago by Judy Englander
Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

I’ve often thought this while driving through the endless subtopia of London. So much sprawling, land-hungry ugliness. When I’m dictator I’ll compulsorily purchase and raze the lot and build beautiful terraces and squares in their place. But until that happy day dawns, getting everyone in any given street to agree won’t be easy, and even then, what happens? Does everybody get put up at the Holiday Inn while their neighbourhood is rebuilt? What happens to all their stuff? The report may have considered these practicalities, but I suspect they’re insuperable.

Gordon Adam
Gordon Adam
1 year ago

May I suggest that the solution to the housing problem is less people. The country is simply over populated.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Adam

Are you happy to be one of The Few?

Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago

I don’t think this will be a magic bullet, because it requires the interests of all the property-owners to come into alignment, and then to all increase the density of their properties – so maybe more applicable to commercial landlords than individual homeowners?
But it is a decent compromise between central planning and total individualism, and may help to take the edge off the housing crisis.
However – I think what may be more effective is to make white-collar work-from-home sustainable. Not just for the individuals and their employers, but by making a plan that enables them to live and work – and use their spending power – in the coastal and former industrial areas that have suffered from the London-centric concentration of wealth and talent.
Now, suddenly, there is a purpose for HS2. Not for that old nightmare scenario of the Midlands and the North becoming commuter suburbs, but for the white-collar types to get together for their face-to-face business meetings once or twice a week.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark H

I wonder what the comparison costs between running an office and its the worker that pays for costs of getting there and the cost of travel to a common meeting place once of twice a week paid for by the employer.

Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago

Good question – I think my employer is paying about £6000 p.a. rent per staff member. If everyone goes in 2 days a week they could save £3600 per staff member.
At around 100 office-days per year the break-even point is a travel cost of £36 office-day. Maybe a bit more as some non-rental costs would also be cut.
[Edit: A London-Bristol season ticket costs around £30 per trip]
I’m not sure how to factor in the saving to the employee of living in a lower-cost area, as a potential benefit to the employer.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark H
Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
1 year ago

The ugliness of new build is also down to the planners. Here in Suffolk, huge swathes of historic buildings in our towns have been pulled down (mostly in the seventies) to be replaced with soul destroying excrescences. Right now there are thousands, really, thousands of lego houses being built over farmland. I don’t recognise where I live anymore – I could be anywhere. Apparently a house a week is being sold to a Londoner (thanks guys), but with indigenous birth rates having flat lined for decades you have to look to immigration for this demand.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
1 year ago

Eight million more people live in the UK than lived here in 1995. How many new homes have been built in that time? How many new cities the size of Birmingham? Astonishingly, perhaps, the additional population since 1995 REQUIRES the equivalent in accommodation of EIGHT Birminghams…. This is an insupportable rise and it is the main reason why prices are so high for accommodation whether you rent or buy it and it is a major cause of the decline in the environment we all live in – the crowding of roads, public services and an inevitable decline in the decencies of life.
None of this was ever unforeseeable, and yet if you raised the issue right now with most of our political class, they would look at you blankly and wonder what you were on about.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tom Fox
Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
1 year ago

Where are all the cars?
One car amongst all those buildings/flats?
I take it that the one car is the local party Commissionaire, or police chief.

Iliya Kuryakin
Iliya Kuryakin
1 year ago

Is this the solution to the housing crisis? No, because the housing crisis is driven by excessive demand (ie mass immigration since 1997) not limited supply.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
1 year ago

The genius of street votes is that the the neighbourhood design is decided by the street collectively, so incorporating all the best aspects of “the Great Estates”, but carried out democratically rather than by Victorian plutocrats.

That’s the sort of comment that can only be made if you are used to living amongst people interested in design and architecture and not those who might call a research ship Boaty McBoatface.
It’s pretty clear what kinds of property people want and there’s an index of relative popularity indicated by the numbers that follow the pound sign when they are listed for sale or rent.
Just build more of that type of property and less of the tatty stuff with poor finish and ultra small rooms and more people would be happy.
The cost of house building is dictated by the stranglehold which LAs have on planning permission. It’s quite right that we don’t need always to build on Greenbelt but, go take a look at some of that so-called Greenbelt. Quite a lot would be improved by a housing development. It’s been designated GB not because it is lovely or environmentally important but quite simply to stop people building houses on it.
The housing crisis is not really about anything other than the quite draconian restriction of land for building by LAs.

Cassian Young
Cassian Young
1 year ago

Why not build a couple of carbon copies of Kensington in some fields in Buckinghamshire?
Your chance to get a house in The Boltons 2.0

David Redfern
David Redfern
1 year ago

This is utter Bollox. A utopian dream predicated on the belief that people care what their houses look like.
Newsflash folks: Most ‘building developments’ are little more than council estates on steroids; built to a common design because the vast majority don’t understand, nor give a monkeys about architecture.
Builders are still constructing housing developments with a bizarre mash up of Tudor, Edwardian and Arts and Crafts design. As long as it has red bricks and a bit of cheap timber decoration, people will fall in love with the ‘romance’ of living in a ‘traditional’ looking, cheaply constructed, timber framed, plasterboarded, fibreglass insulated, semi detached with walls thin enough to hear the neighbours farting, or worse, house!
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. At least house buyers own something of value instead of the council owning it. The problem is, extracting that value when they retire, they still have to buy another “‘traditional’ looking, cheaply constructed, timber framed, plasterboarded, fibreglass insulated, semi detached with walls thin enough to hear the neighbours farting, or worse, house!”.
Just accept that people are tribal, they don’t have a clue about housing, far less architecture, and leave the people with imagination to build extraordinary houses, in extraordinary places just to annoy the curtain twitchers.
Architecture identifies imagineers, it doesn’t celebrate conformity.
And isn’t this just the statement one would expect to tumble from the mouth of an Uber WOKE, left wing, batshit crazy woker? “This is far more important than headline-grabbing debates about the “war on woke” or university free speech.”
They are headline grabbing because they are important to society at large you WOKER!
Without the war on woke and restrictions on free speech, we don’t have the opportunity to build individually expressive homes.

Sue Denim
Sue Denim
1 year ago

If my local city is anything to go by, I’d expect the town houses pictured in the article to be converted to HMOs in next to no time.
Nearly all 3 story houses that go on the market locally are bought by investors and converted in to HMOs with all the parking problems, noise etc that HMOs seem to create.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

To be deliberately provocative, a big problem with housing is that buyers buy preparing for a family. In a three-bedroom property the children leave eventually leaving two people and the one person and then none – when the property goes back into circulation again. Ideally, it would be better if this property was to return to the market 25 years earlier.
Without proposing state control and I don’t know how to achieve it, people have to be prepared to move down in size as they get older.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris Wheatley
Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The small estate where we live – built as council housing in the 70s – is an attempt at solving the problem. There are 3 and 2-bedroomed terraced houses, 2 bedroom flats, and retirement bungalows in a ratio of about 3:1:1:1
I think the idea was the council tenants would progress through the housing types as their needs changed, and they would not feel dislocation because their move would literally be to the other side of the street.
The sell-off of council properties put a bit of a spanner in the works of that scheme as the houses are now about 50% privately owned. But even our neighbours who are council tenants are resistant to giving up their nice houses when their kids leave home. And with break-up of marriages it can occur that a single person ends up occupying a 3 bed council house – and the housing association doesn’t even know.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark H

Theoretically the “bedroom tax” was introduced to try and reduce this problem, but I don’t know what’s happened as a result of that.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

But if everyone is working from home they need those extra bedrooms to convert into a home office.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

Yes, some will but a lot won’t. I remember having this discussion with my mother years ago. She was so attached to sentimental reasons for keeping rooms full of furniture but when she died 95 per cent went into the skip because it was not really in good nick.
In a way, persuading someone to live in a very small flat, which they can manage properly, can delay the dreaded move into a nursing home.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

WHY?
It is none of YOUR business whether I live in a large house on my own. IT IS MY HOUSE.
Where do you think you are, Stalin’s Russia? Mao’s China?

It is not a problem that people own their own property and decide when and where to sell it. The problem is that for the last twenty five and more years we have seen migrants swarming into the country and no one was building housing for them which has led to a critical shortage and vastly too expensive rents and house prices.

Meanwhile the latest bright idea from our USELESS government is to invite five million Hong Kongers to move here…. As individuals, I have no problem with them, but the very last thing this already foully over crowded island needs is another five million people scrabbling to live on it. The government are acting like a bunch of lemmings.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

Unfortunately, you could be wrong. Maybe you are just out of date with the world.

David Redfern
David Redfern
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

And maybe you want a knock down price house. There is nothing out of date with doing what you want with something you worked hard all your life for.

David Redfern
David Redfern
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

The Chinese Hong Kong community will deal with their own housing issues. They are hard working, British loving, for the most part relatively wealthy, and will be a credit to this country.
They will likely vote Conservative as they have witnessed first hand the excesses of communism, so you better believe they will be a boon to this country.
Most also speak English and are conversant with our parliamentary system and our laws as they have lived with them for generations.
They are the best possible thing that could happen to this country.

Nikita Kubanovs
Nikita Kubanovs
1 year ago
Reply to  David Redfern

As much as I agree that immigrants from Hong Kong will no doubt be able to integrate into British society really well, it doesn’t change that fact that 5 million people will pack up their stuff and move into this country. 5 million!! Where are you going to put them, they have to go somewhere.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

The housing crisis is caused by the mismatch in supply and demand. This in turn is caused by government policies since the mid-80s and arguably earlier whose aim was to drive house prices and rents up and simultaneously cap wages. Until this is addressed, the housing crisis will continue.
Having said that, there is an issue between the desires of councillors, planners and architects and the wishes of the people who have to live in the towns they create. That divide would be addressed if we had genuine local democracy where the entire council is elected simultaneously. Preceding those elections, any party would have the opportunity to campaign on a coherent policy of planning, employment and community and to take power. If the established parties won’t do that, then new parties would.