The government says its ‘street votes’ policy, allowing neighborhoods to hold referendums on whether to build more housing, will give people ‘more involvement’ in local development and achieve what Michael Gove describes as a “gentle densification”. But the concept may lead to more feuds between neighbors than new homes, writes associate editor Jessica Hill.
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The politics of street votes fits perfectly into the utopian vision of the world I aspire to live in, in which councils have ample resources to regulate all the latest brilliant ideas from government and residents strive to make their more beautiful communities and their happy neighbours.
Unfortunately, the Suffolk village I live in is not like that. A very English ‘not in my backyard’ mentality still prevails across the country, which is why so many residents’ association parties have performed well in local elections. And judging by the prolific trash happening here, few people care enough to make their communities more beautiful. Therein lies the unfortunate problem with Mr. Gove’s policy.
The Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities said street votes would work by giving residents the power to propose new developments, and the “immediate community will hold a vote on whether they should get planning permission”.
“Groups of residents will have the power to develop proposals to extend or replace properties on their street, provided it adheres to strict planning and design rules,” they told LGC.
The idea originally came from Policy Exchange, that beloved think tank of ministers who also dreamed up the concept of “zoning zones” – another highly controversial concept that would have stripped the democratic powers of advisers. Fortunately, it was later dropped from the government’s reform program following an outcry from councils and planning organisations.
The problem is that this policy assumes that there are many tight-knit communities with an entrepreneurial spirit that want to see more bricks and mortar going up in their areas. Presumably, these communities also have local doctors and dentists with plenty of space on their patient books, and schools eager to welcome new students. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most areas.
In my experience, most people tend to have a narrow and wary view of new developments in their area, which means their default position is to oppose them.
Younger residents eager to move up the housing ladder or people who potentially see a financial benefit in listing on a new development may be more likely to agree, but that could lead to tense clashes with their nimby neighbors.
The Royal Town Planning Institute’s head of policy, Richard Blyth, told LGC that his body remains “wary of the tensions that street votes can cause among communities, where a considerable degree of acceptance will be required for approvals”. .
Politics entrusts democracy to certain households and takes it away from people who may not live on these streets but who have to walk them every day for work, for example.
It is also unclear whether rules will be put in place to protect the rights of social tenants in these areas and to mitigate the risk of abuse of the system. The advantage of a council being responsible for planning decisions is that it has a responsibility to represent all of its residents, not just those with vested interests.
DLUHC told LGC that the policy is “not about blocking or vetoing development,” but “will provide an additional planning tool that residents can use to advance the development they would like to see on their streets.” .
They explained that the development will only go ahead if the proposal is approved by a “supermajority” of residents in a referendum, with the precise thresholds for approval to be defined in due course – although the newspapers have assumed that a two-thirds majority would be required.
Mr Gove tacitly acknowledged that the government would now fail to meet its overt commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year this year, but insisted that these changes to the planning process would lead to more developments in the future.
“People have resisted development because too often you’ve just had numbers reduced just to achieve some arbitrary goal – You’ve had dormitories not quarters,” he said in what could be interpreted as a mockery of the zealousness of former housing secretaries. focus on achieving housing goals at all costs. “People, when it comes to housing development, should be partners,” he continued.
The District Councils Network agreed with the ‘neighborhood involvement’ principle behind the plans but warned the ‘acid test’ would implement it ‘without the unintended consequence of stopping developments that improve our places communities and support economic development.
In addition, questions have been raised about who will enforce the rules around the measures – it will likely be under resourced councils, but planning departments are already severely overstretched.
Laura Lock, chief executive of the Association of Election Administrators, told LGC she would be “incredibly concerned” about the impact on the voting community if election service teams were to hold these referendums. Neighborhood planning referenda have already contributed significantly to the work of many election teams, and a DLUHC consultation is already underway to organize street name change referenda.
“Local communities do not have unlimited resources,” she warned. “The capacity within electoral service teams is already stretched to the point of near breaking point. Additional charges increase the risk of democratic failure in any ballot, especially with the challenges the sector already faces.
That said, I sincerely hope that Mr Gove will prove my cynical views of human nature wrong, and that street votes lead to harmonious agreements between neighbors for ‘soft densification’ – thereby reducing the need for new developments.
But I’m pretty sure that just funneling more money into the council’s planning services would do a lot more to kick off new developments – just without the catchy headlines.