John Penrose: How ‘street votes’ could both fund levelling up and ease the housing crisis

28 Oct

John Penrose is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, and is MP for Weston-super-Mare.

A sluggish economy means neuralgia for any Chancellor, because it turns budget day into a zero-sum tug-of-war. For every group that gets more taxpayer cash, there’s another that must lose out.

But higher growth is economic aspirin: it clears the headache because there are more winners and fewer losers. And one of the biggest-ticket routes to faster growth is to free up our sclerotic, ponderous housing market so we can build loads more of the right types of homes in the right places.

A paper from Create Streets says it could be worth £9 billion a year for the Chancellor without raising tax rates. That’s a lot of aspirin.

It’s easier said than done, of course. Everyone agrees we have a massive housing shortage, and that it’s making homes unaffordably expensive to rent or buy for far too many people. But agreeing what to build where is where the headaches come roaring back.

Even then, there are plenty of things that everyone agrees on. Outside city centres, most of us are unimpressed by high-rise towers. Outside towns and villages, almost no-one likes building on green fields. So why is agreeing what to build where so hard?

One way to make it less difficult is to think local. I’ve just proposed a Private Members Bill in Parliament which lets individual streets or neighbourhoods take things into their own hands.

If they don’t like their local Council’s plans, they could create their own instead. They would include a local development style code to make sure any new buildings and extensions match the best of what’s there already, so they give neighbourhoods back their character and beauty by stopping ‘anywhere-ville’ estates of identical houses. They would have democratic local support, because they’d have to be approved in a local referendum, with a ‘super-majority’ (perhaps 60 per cent of the votes) threshold to make sure it was genuinely what everyone wanted.

They would be greener, because denser neighbourhoods let more people live closer to their jobs, replacing commuting and cars with bikes, buses and walks. They would protect green fields by giving builders lots of new, convenient urban sites to develop and improve, and be cheaper and more productive because all the electricity, water, schools and health centers are already installed nearby.

And, best of all, once they were approved everyone in the neighbourhood would benefit, because they’d all be able to modify their homes according to the new plans if they wanted to, without needing any further planning permissions.

Any exceptions? Well, yes but only a few: everyone would still have to follow building regulations so any new construction was safe, and if you or I wanted to build anything different from whatever the new neighbourhood plan allowed, or to alter a protected heritage building, we’d still have to apply for planning permission in the normal way.

That leaves plenty of people who could benefit. Experts estimate that 15.5 million homeowning families would be eligible for street votes if they want to. Even if only a fraction of them decide to go ahead (and the whole point of Street Votes is that they don’t have to if they don’t like the idea: no-one is imposing unwanted estates of new houses on anyone) it could transform the ones that do, and create a surge of economic growth into the bargain.

From the Chancellor’s viewpoint, that means more VAT, more income tax, more corporation tax, and more national insurance contributions – without higher tax rates.

How much easier would his job be if he had an extra £9bn per year to play with? That would let him fund the Campaign for Better Transport’s proposed reversals of the Beeching railway cuts, and give each regional mayor their own single funding pot to spend on any project with a positive business case. He could probably throw in Northern Powerhouse rail and some tram networks, too.

If we want to level up properly, we need growth to fund it. Street Votes can be one way to let communities and neighbourhoods level themselves up, along with the rest of the country.