Media Release

‘People power’ over planning could help fix housing crisis – think-tank

Giving local residents a greater say over proposed construction in their area could help fix the UK’s housing crisis, according to a new report published by the Social Market Foundation think tank.

The report argues that the current system creates ‘gridlock’ because it gives too much power to planning authorities, and offers too little opportunity for neighbours  to find ‘win-win’ solutions that protect the interests of existing residents while also creating new housing.

The report was written by John Myers, of the PricedOut and YIMBY Alliance campaigns, which press for more new housing.

Steve Baker MP, a senior Conservative backbencher, supports Myers’ proposals in a foreword to the paper, writing: “This issue is not about being a Tory, a NIMBY or political-point scoring. Rather, it is about providing millions of people across our country with hope for their futures.”

Myers argues for a ‘peer-to-peer’ decision making system that allows local people direct powers to allow more development – tailored to the region (rural or otherwise).

Such schemes have met with success in areas in Surrey and South Devon, where local groups needed consent from higher planning authorities to draw them up. On a larger scale, they have helped to address the accessibility and affordability of housing in places like Tel Aviv and Houston.

The proposals come amid a period of uncertainty for the Government’s intended reforms to the planning system, reported to have been paused following strong resistance from some backbench MPs and their perceived role in the Conservative defeat in June’s Chesham and Amersham by-election.

The Government has pledged to build 300,000 new homes a year, and in August 2020 published the Planning for the Future white paper, which laid out a shift towards a ‘rules-based’ system rather than case-by-case discretionary planning decisions and mandating local housing plans and targets.

Drawing on the insights of Nobel prize winning economists Elinor Ostrom and Ronald Coase, Myers suggests that developing a system that encourages developers and residents to strike mutually beneficial bargains could be a way forward.

Rather than expecting the potential losers of planning reform to accept their losses without protest, such an approach would seek to ensure that new development proceeds in a way that benefits most stakeholders.

The report floats four ideas that the Government should pursue in its forthcoming planning Bill:

  • Devolving power to village residents to allow more development next to their communities
  • “Street votes”, where residents of a stretch of road can set out rules to allow for more extensions or other development
  • “Mews votes”, where residents of housing around waste land can approve development on that land
  • Allowing residents of a street to allow an additional floor behind a mansard roof to fill gaps or to vote for a uniform permission for such roofs to be built

The report highlights the continuing burden of the housing crisis, and urges the government to take action.

Myers points to official estimates that the total value of UK housing is now £3.7 trillion more than the cost of building those homes, proof that the housing market is functioning poorly. One cause is  a  planning system that create enormous inefficiencies that force up the cost of housing, with a range of negative consequences:

  • Between 1995-2005, the proportion of 25-34-year-olds who own their home has fallen from 65% to 27%. Many more are more are compelled to rent, typically far away from the best career and educational opportunities.
  • The number of families in London who were living in overcrowded conditions, according to the bedroom standards, rose from 5.5% in 2000 to 8.3% in 2020.
  • The number of workers commuting two hours or more increased by 72% from 2004 to 2016.

Some estimates suggest that restrictions on housing supply dampen economic growth rates by two percentage points a year.

John Myers, founder of YIMBY Alliance, said:

“Almost no-one is happy with the current planning system. We need to allow communities powers to enable more homes in ways that benefit the community.”

Steve Baker MP said:

“It is clear that we cannot continue with our current planning system. Costs and disbenefits are imposed on individuals without adequate inclusion in the process or adequate compensation being provided. We need to give the public the opportunity to say “no” to planning proposals, but the incentives to say “yes” because they see the gains for their community.

This paper could provide a new start for our planning system that allows communities to take control over their lives and define the direction of their areas. Ultimately, this is how we will solve our current housing crisis and bring communities together for the betterment of all.”

Greg Smith MP said:

“Planning in the UK is broken. Driving through our villages signs proclaiming ‘no to xxx houses’ or ‘no new development here’ are commonplace – and politicians ignore that at our peril.  This is especially the case when we know the reality of local opposition to developments negotiated at distance will end up being passed by allegedly democratic bodies citing ‘spatial strategies’, ‘visions’ and ‘local plans’.  This new paper proposes a fundamentally good principle of genuine localism and people power. The most perverse elements of the Government’s planning white paper was the further erosion of local decision making.

This paper takes it entirely the other way, giving street by street, village by village, parish by parish the power to say yes or no.  That must surely be a positive step to protecting the land, especially countryside, and giving communities the ability to decide what is right for them.”

Anya Martin, of PricedOut, said:

“With house prices continuing to rise and more young people being permanently locked out of homeownership, it’s clear that Government has to do something to address our dire housing shortage. These proposals would remove the bureaucratic barriers that stop people meeting that need within their own communities.”

Chris Worrall, Editor of the Red Brick Blog and Fabian Society Local Government and Housing Member Policy Group Chair said:

“This paper exemplifies how we should be focusing on positive ways to increase housing supply and the need to be inclusionary in that process.”




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