John Myers: Fixing housing is like the European Super League

24 May

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, and campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

It took only hours for the wheels to start coming off. The big new announcement from the titans in the field of a bold and better future, with higher performance and better output, rapidly triggered howls of outrage. There were questions from MPs, scandal in the media, angry voters complaining.

But enough about last year’s Government announcement of a big jump in housing targets.

The still-born European Super League has many lessons for fixing housing. Just like the ESL, housing is a topic where everyone has an opinion – often a strong one. Many do not watch football, but most people have a view on a big, noisy, dusty, messy development near them, especially if it will replace pretty countryside or cause problems with parking.

It was astonishing how little preparatory work was done by the financier-owners of the super-clubs to smooth the path before launching ESL onto an unsuspecting world. No independent voices were lined up to speak up in support. No other clubs – those who might be at the top of the Premier league if the exiting clubs departed, for example – were in favour. Even the supporters of the ESL clubs themselves were often hostile. There wasn’t even time to get onto entertaining questions like whether JP Morgan’s investment was backed by even less PR-friendly hedge funds taking most of the risk. Such deals have happened.

Just like football, fixing housing takes deep preparation. Nicholas Ridley’s 1987 proposals for more homes in the countryside were watered down within two months of publication. Of over 200 schemes for new settlements proposed by 1989, a mere seven were granted planning permission. Ridley’s ideas, particularly his decision to allow the 4,800 houses on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Foxley Wood, led to his replacement as Secretary of State by Chris Patten, who rapidly reversed that decision.

The same goes for the previous system of targets, scaled back by a Conservative Secretary of State in 2010. The rapid adjustment of last year’s housing target proposals surprised no-one who has read their history.

It is important and right to build more homes. In 1994, some 15 per cent of 25-34 year olds rented privately; today, over 40 per cent do, and many others are forced to live with their parents. We have literally gone backwards in housing for younger generations, and there is nothing inevitable about that. Other countries do far better.

But most planning reform proposals last not much longer than the ESL. There is little preparation to test whether they will be workable or durable, to build a coalition of support or to reduce the most likely opposition. The proponents are often surprised by the wave of hostility greeting their announcement. The Prime Minister might appear vaguely supportive beforehand but then come out against the scheme when the barrage from MPs becomes too great.

We, as a society, have failed to do the hard work of finding ways to add more homes, while making better places and keeping existing residents onside.

There is also a danger that, if not done carefully, planning reform can backfire badly. The Permanent Secretary at the Housing Ministry in the 1960s, Evelyn Sharp, saw a conflict ‘between “modern” planning and “reactionary” preservation’. That view caused a backlash against unpopular excesses which led to the creation of thousands of conservation areas, which have generally succeeded in protecting their historic buildings but almost completely failed in the other statutory task of ‘enhancement’ and adding more housing.

It can be done. There are plenty of examples of local people taking the lead on permitting more housing where they see the benefits for them: from parishes seeking to add homes next to their village, to the residents of the flats of Hafer Road in Wandsworth who decided to redevelop their whole building. Similar mechanisms added one third of the new housing in Tel Aviv last year. Policy Exchange’s recent Strong Suburbs report suggests one potential way forward.

The core principle of successful reforms is that they give existing communities the power to allow and share the benefits of development, of the right quality, in their area. Policies based on overpowering the local resistance to development may sound hard-headed, but they are actually thick-headed: in the long run, popular resistance always wins, and the top-down reforms fail even on their own terms.

The Government will continue to need to prepare, to experiment, and to seek to work with locals to build a durable coalition of support behind development. In New York, the famous bureaucrat Robert Moses did the opposite, with large-scale demolition for freeways and hostile urban landscapes. He has long been vilified for the damage that he did, but the point often overlooked is that he also failed to prevent the acute housing shortage in today’s New York. Building a successful housing legacy requires care, intelligence, and a keen awareness of the lessons of history.


John Myers: A good design code is crucial to make new housing popular with local communities

3 Aug

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, and campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

Robert Jenrick, the radical and ambitious Housing Secretary, has just announced two new ‘permitted development’ rights so that owners can add up to two floors to post-1948 houses and post-1948 freestanding blocks of flats, without planning permission.

Both have numerous restrictions. Bungalows can only add a single floor. For upward extensions of houses, councils have to sign off on privacy, sunlight, and the appearance of the front.

He also announced that from September there will be no restriction on switching between using a building as a shop, restaurant, café, creche, daycare, or for financial or professional services, light industry, or indoor sport. Pubs and hot food takeaways will still need permission for change of use, as will community halls and small shops selling essentials if there’s no other nearby.

All of this is just a hint of what is to come in the September White Paper on planning reform.

How much impact will this have? Some shops will become restaurants or offices. Some more housing will be built. Some flats will be added above existing blocks. Many large families stuck with too few bedrooms would be grateful for more. Some houses will get subdivided into maisonettes to create more homes.

A few penthouse owners will complain, if their lease doesn’t guarantee them the top floor. Some might sue their solicitor for not telling them it didn’t.

Some next door neighbours will complain if the council does not care about overshadowing of their garden, or their sudden inability to sunbathe nude in it.

Some atrocities of the 1950s and 1970s will get extended upwards. The legislation requires that the new materials should resemble the existing house in appearance. The neighbours might wish the existing materials had been buried in an unmarked grave and replaced with something attractive.

Another slight issue is that once you have extended an ugly two-storey house to become an ugly four-storey house, it is often uneconomic to knock it down and replace it with a beautiful pair of terraces or a mansion block. More fundamental improvement of the planning system cannot come too soon, or we may get permanently locked into many square miles of bad land use.

And the residents of conservation areas can breathe easy – unless they wanted more living space – because they are excluded from these permitted development rights. I’d guess the government wants to see the results before letting these rights loose in conservation areas, if it ever will. Of course, if you let unpleasant things happen except in conservation areas, residents not living in conservation areas will rapidly get the message and apply to become conservation areas themselves. Then you end up with even fewer new homes.

Conservation areas are the most damning admission that the normal planning system is totally incapable of ensuring that new development improves places, rather than harming them. Instead, wealthier areas get a second layer of control, to prevent most of the crud that the normal system would allow.

If you do not trust your new reform enough for it to apply in conservation areas, how much do you really trust it to ensure better places?

Hopefully the government has also considered that restaurants cause greater fire risk than other uses in the ‘shop and other’ category. It might be better at least to require consent for restaurant use from the owners of any properties directly above. They could sell if they are unhappy, but friction from taxes like stamp duty mean society might still end up worse off overall from some of these new restaurant kitchens. Perhaps the government didn’t require consent from flats above on advice from its lawyers, because the enabling statute for ‘permitted development rights’ doesn’t clearly allow it.

The trailed ‘consultation’ of neighbours about upward extension disappeared from the new rights too, probably for the same reason. So far as I can see, even if the local community picks a design code in their neighbourhood plan, the planners are under no obligation to follow it when approving the upward extension.

Everything is still to play for in the new White Paper. It will probably move towards a kind of ‘zoning regime’ recommended by the Prime Minister’s Housing Adviser, Jack Airey. More certainty is long overdue.

But the four trillion pound question is whether they can fix participation and the benefits of new development so that residents actually welcome it, or whether we will remain stuck with a system where successive governments have to impose more housing against local wishes, and invariably fail to produce anything like the needed amount of the right quality in the right places.

The most powerful force in politics is the pleasure of homeowners in seeing their home and their area become more cherished and more valuable. The only way to fix housing is to let that force pull in the direction you want. Ministers who try to push against it will, like so many of their predecessors, generate a short-term but unpopular boost in housing that ultimately fails.