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Street votes: How greater local control of development can transform our suburban neighbourhoods

Supurbia from HTA

There's rather more to Policy Exchange's 'street votes' proposal than initially meets the eye, says Ben Derbyshire - and it has the capacity to transform our suburban neighbourhoods

Not all suburbs live up to the vision of leafy, thriving neighbourhoods inspired by Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement. Many are undermined by poor stock condition, unsustainable population densities, declining local services, congestion and environmental degradation caused by motor cars. Even in the least propitious circumstances, suburban dwellers are fearful of and resistant to development that is done TO them. For more than a decade at my practice HTA Design, we have been looking for ways that regeneration can be done BY suburban communities – we have a vision we call Supurbia.

So when Samuel Hughes and Ben Southwood of Policy Exchange invited us to contribute to their Strong Suburbs policy proposal, based on similar principles, we were happy to help. Working with Yolande Barnes (late of Savills, now the Bartlett Real Estate Institute), our Supurbia idea is that controlled and sustainable suburban intensification could be triggered if only homeowners could access the development value of their plots, individually or in combination, supported by an appropriate policy regime. Limits on development would be imposed by pre-approved ‘plot passports’. We envisaged neighbourhood forums might use neighbourhood development orders in designated zones of poor, low-density housing stock, particularly around train stations, that would be eligible for urbanisation if their residents so wished.

Supurbia has achieved wide recognition over the years, with lots of press coverage including a piece by Mark Easton on BBC News at Ten that majored on its sustainability credentials – renewable energy networks, biophilic design, car sharing, and so on. Yet our hoped-for vision has not come close to realisation until now, with the Secretary of State for Housing signalling real interest in his foreword to the Policy Exchange Strong Suburbs report.

Whatever else you think of the planning reform set out in Robert Jenrick’s white paper last year, Planning for the Future (and I have profound concerns about much of it), there is a place for zoning to meet specific local circumstances. Design codes are a useful planning tool in localised conditions where development in small increments might take place over a long time frame so that their purpose is to deliver a design intent with coherence. So the Policy Exchange ‘’street votes’ idea might well be a vehicle for enabling the realisation of Supurbia in the context of an appropriately reformed planning system. This is an appealing prospect to those of us who believe that radical suburban intensification is essential to sustainable cities of the future.

"This is an appealing prospect to those of us who believe that radical suburban intensification is essential to sustainable cities of the future"

Here I’d like to correct some misapprehensions that have arisen since the publication of the Strong Suburbs report. A two-thirds majority is proposed to trigger the opportunity for intensification and tenants as well as homeowners get to vote. Tenants’ rights are protected, and affected tenants are compensated under the proposals. Absentee landlords would be ineligible to vote. There is no compulsion to participate if individual households demur. Planning gain is built into the proposals to deal with demands on infrastructure and social housing. In these respects, the Policy Exchange proposals are a pretty close approximation to the Supurbia concept, and I’d argue will deliver similar benefits.

Once in place, a policy framework such as this will be a terrific stimulus for popular housing development and local economic activity. The development process will transform the finances of many equity rich, cash-poor households, enliven local services, enrich local communities and provide opportunities for SMEs to deliver a hassle-free development process for communities with potential to improve the lives of many in declining suburban areas.

So despite my general disquiet over his planning reforms, it’s significant that the housing secretary has endorsed an approach which embeds a ballot of those immediately affected as an indication of local support – a sure way of achieving provable popularity. I therefore look forward to seeing whether the legislation planned for later this year takes up the challenge of policies for radical suburban intensification that aim to turn NIMBYs to YIMBYs - Supurbia, indeed!

Ben Derbyshire is chair of HTA Design, a Historic England commissioner and wrote the foreword to the Strong Suburbs report

Image | HTA Design

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HTA Design’s head of planning Riette Oosthuizen has previously written about the ‘supurbia’ concept for The Planner: Super surburbia: How suburban densification can help to relieve the housing shortage



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