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More and better housing starts with better streets

24 October 2017 Author: John Myers

By securing local support and relieving pressure from local planning teams, street level permitted development rights could help combat the housing crisis, says London YIMBY.


Planners face ever-increasing challenges from lack of resources, endless reforms and increasing bureaucracy. The nation is building too few homes of the right kind in the right places, and many that are built are unpopular with local people. The London YIMBY campaign - Yes In My Back Yard - recently published the best ways we have seen to get more homes built with local support.

One of the most powerful ways to get local support for development, we find, is to allow individual streets to be enhanced.

This country, particularly in demand hotspots, has faced a mounting housing crisis for decades. Housing is the major cause of inequality, and the housing crisis is particularly hard on the poor and on young people struggling to start their careers.

The value of the land under UK dwellings has, according to the Office for National Statistics, increased from only half of GDP in 1957 to two times GDP today, or an incredible 40% of the entire net worth of the nation. The London YIMBY campaign estimates that building enough of the right homes and other infrastructure could improve productivity per head by 30% over a couple of decades.

The hardest problem is political. Many reform proposals are well-meant but are like the fable of ‘belling the cat’. The mice all liked the idea of attaching a bell to the cat to warn them, but no mouse volunteered to do it.

No politician in decades has dared to build many more homes, because homeowners are a majority of voters and like to see their house prices go up.

We asked whether there might be popular ways to give planners more time to focus on masterplanning and infrastructure, without the many problems of nationally-imposed permitted development rights and without allowing damaging or controversial developments.

Support from at least some existing homeowners is the only way to make it likely that a real-life politician will adopt the reform.

One of the most powerful ways to get local support for development, we find, is to allow individual streets to be enhanced.

Half of the homes in London are in buildings with only one or two storeys, and the facts for many other cities are similar. Many 20th century suburban streets are only one-fifth the density of much-loved historic streets like those in Bloomsbury or Pimlico, for example.

Densification and beauty can go hand in hand

It is often possible to increase the square footage on a typical suburban plot fivefold by building terraces and increasing height to five or six storeys, like Bloomsbury, while protecting the houses behind from garden grabbing. With a good design code, it can easily make the street more attractive and walkable, and make more local services viable.

The resulting building can either accommodate a much larger family, or can be split into maisonettes or flats. A few plots can easily be combined to form a mansion block behind a frontage that blends with the rest of the street.

We were surprised to learn how many Georgian streets were built with one or several houses at a time. There is no need to build all the plots at once.

Residents "owning" the outcome

We found the key to getting homeowners comfortable was to allow them jointly to choose a design code for the façades of new buildings, so that they could be sure that the end result would look better than it did before. Traditional permitted development rights can often result in an unsightly mess, with many unintended consequences.

The London YIMBY ‘better streets’ proposal suggests that single streets should be allowed to vote to give themselves additional permitted development rights to extend or replace the buildings on the street, coupled with a design code of their own choosing for the façades to ensure a high quality outcome.

To make sure it only happens where there is widespread support, we suggest requiring a two-thirds majority of existing residents, and also of residents who have been there for at least three years, to prevent developers gaming the system.

We also suggest:

  • a maximum height of six storeys;
  • strict limits on how far down a back garden the new construction should be allowed to extend, to protect the houses behind; and
  • special rules for corner houses, basements, and on loss of light for houses on the street behind.

It's for the long term

Many streets will not decide to change. But our study showed that a surprising number of homeowners were in favour. Particularly near good public transport, it can be very compelling: in some areas, homeowners could see their house value treble if their street implements the new rights.

No one is forced to use the new permitted development rights of course. Homeowners can just sit on them, or team up with a small builder to extend and subdivide. Or they can sell when they want to, buying another home and giving the surplus money to their children or grandchildren to buy their own homes, while the original house is replaced with multiple maisonettes or, combined with adjacent plots, replaced with a mansion block with many more flats. The street may be unevenly developed until all the plots catch up, but that is not the end of the world – particularly when the street itself has chosen the design and the outcome.

We are looking for ways to improve on the idea, or for better, politically feasible ideas. If you would like to share your views* or suggestions, please get in touch. Together we can build a better country.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Our thoughts on London YIMBY's ideas are here


John Myers

John Myers

John Myers worked in law, finance and technology before co-founding London YIMBY, a campaigning organisation to make a secure, comfortable home affordable for everyone.