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15/04/2021

Legal landscape: How street votes could unlock housing across the country

Policy Exchange’s proposal for a system of hyperlocal referenda to drive development heralds a new approach to addressing the housing shortage that is worthy of consideration, says Mustafa Latif-Aramesh

Strong Suburbs, a new report from Policy Exchange, puts forward an exciting proposal to increase housing. In short, ‘street votes’ would enable the devolution of plan making to a street level to enable the existing built volume to be increased in accordance with a design code – if 60 per cent of the residents of any particular street agree. While the proposal is by no means a panacea, it could lead to a significant number of new homes: in Israel, where analogous proposals have been implemented, they are responsible for more than a third of new housing starts in the country’s central region. They would also likely lead to an additional boon to both local authorities and current homeowners (the report estimates an average of £79,000 per new home for the former, £900,000 for the latter), and a 0.5 percentage point increase in GDP.

The proposal is neat in that it circumvents the conventional debates on the appropriate use of the green belt and whether increasing house prices are driven by demand or supply. This is because the proposals rely on using existing residential areas, and on local communities approving the plans, showing a local demand. 

“The proposal is neat in that it circumvents conventional debates on the appropriate use of the green belt and whether increasing house prices are driven by demand or supply”

No doubt cautious endorsements from Robert Jenrick and the RTPI’s Richard Blyth arise from carefully balancing a robust process to ascertain residents’ desires with existing protections. On process, the proposals set out how a street would initiate approval (at least 20 per cent of residents or one person from at least 10 different homes – whichever is greater) and the details of the quorum for any vote on enabling this kind of development (including a requirement for at least one person from 50 per cent of the houses to vote in favour of the proposals) – much more community consensus than a conventional planning application. 


In brief...

  • A Policy Exchange report proposes ‘street votes’ on development to increase housebuilding
  • There are numerous potential benefits, particularly when balanced with sensible planning constraints

How the proposal integrates with existing plans and legislation remains to be seen –- but, in essence, street votes on development show the way forward.


 

On existing protections, green belt, national parks, and areas of outstanding natural beauty are all excluded from such street plans. The report recommends planning conditions which control working hours and require carbon net-zero homes. 

What is the legal effect of a passed street vote? Any street which passed a street vote would be treated as its own ‘renewal’ area, a term taken from the government’s white paper zoning proposals. In effect, any street plan would provide the policy support for development. 

Practically, local authorities will have issues grappling with a flurry of related applications, and monitoring the proper enforcement of any street votes. In addition, how the street votes work with the government’s forthcoming environment bill will also need close consideration – what would be the role, for example, of the Office of Environmental Protection when it comes to these kinds of street votes? In London, how would street-based plans work with the mayor’s call-in powers? 

A further constraint may be how the government wishes to amend wider European legislation, particularly the Environmental Impact Assessment directive and Strategic Environmental Assessment directives, now the UK has left the EU. 

These issues, however, should not detract from the implementation of street votes. Given the importance of housebuilding, even significant issues like environmental impact assessments or mayoral call-in should accommodate street votes, rather than the other way around.   

Mustafa Latif-Aramesh is senior associate at BDB Pitmans

Image credit | iStock

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