From a property point of view, the main announcement made in the recent Queen’s Speech – which was carried out by Prince Charles as the Queen rested on health grounds – was the reiteration of the Government’s commitment to rental reform.
This came alongside confirmation that the Leasehold Reform Act will come into force on June 30 and the announcement of a Social Housing Regulation Bill to tackle rogue landlords.
But one of the most striking elements revealed by the Government was the plans to give more powers to local people when it comes to planning decisions. This was, perhaps, a reaction to the controversy caused by the Planning Bill, which some suggested had led to the Tories’ shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election last year.
One of the first decisions taken by Michael Gove when he took over from Robert Jenrick as Housing Secretary in September last year was to put the controversial planning reforms on ice. Now it seems there is a determination to give residents a much greater say in shaping local planning decisions.
What was announced?
One of the 38 new bills announced by Prince Charles was the upcoming Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is set to serve as the replacement for the scrapped Planning Bill, which had previously been announced in last year’s Queen Speech but had proven wildly unpopular in some quarters.
This new legislation was originally put forward in the long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper published in February, with ‘street votes’ one of the major new planning reforms introduced as part of this.
Street votes are one of the Government’s new planning reforms as part of its ongoing levelling up plans, ‘to give residents more involvement in local development’ and give local people the power to set their own development rules in suburban areas.
Under the plans for street votes, or street referendums, 20% of residents or 10 homeowners, whichever figure is higher, could ask their local council to hold a referendum on a design code for their street.
This code could be used to determine the size, height and style of new homes and enable homeowners to add extensions, but the code would need the support of 60% of residents, which would then lead to automatic planning permission for new homes and extensions.
A referendum on new schemes?
Michael Gove has claimed that 'street votes' are a way of boosting democratic involvement in homebuilding, but the countryside charity CPRE said the policy would simply enable homeowners to have more space and grow the value of their properties, making it even more difficult for first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder.
Paul Miners, the group’s policy director, said: “We don’t think it will provide any more affordable homes, [it] will make existing homes in urban areas less affordable, and there are no guarantees it will lead to more homes overall.”
Meanwhile, Marc von Grundherr, director of Benham and Reeves, said of the proposal: “The problem with announcements around planning reform, whilst it is badly needed, is that injecting more democracy on a local level is likely to clog up the system rather than improve it.”
According to The Guardian, officials said the votes would grant residents the right to allow the development or replacement of properties on their street within design rules and national policies. They said development would only go ahead if the proposal is endorsed by a ‘supermajority’ of residents at referendum.
However, Peter Rainier, principal director of planning at law firm DMH Stallard, told the paper: “It has the scope to be very divisive in terms of neighbours.”
In addition to street votes on planning permission and new development, the bill also includes the necessity for community votes if a council wants to change a street name.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May voiced her doubts about street votes in the Commons, warning of ‘unintended consequences’.
“I can well imagine a situation in which somebody persuades their neighbours in a street to agree to the sort of development that might enhance the value of their houses but which actually has a negative impact on the wider community and wider neighbourhood,” she warned.
Where did the idea come from?
The concept was first mooted last year by the right-wing and highly influential Policy Exchange thinktank, with the backing of several architects and planners who have championed the ‘densification’ of urban areas, partly to lessen the pressure to build on open fields and protect much-loved greenfield sites.
“Residents of a street should be able to agree by a high majority on new strict rules for designs to make better use of their plots. A street of suburban bungalows, for example, could agree on the right to create Georgian-style terraces. In many cases, an adopted ‘street plan’ would greatly increase the value of residents’ homes, giving them strong reasons to agree on it,” it said, while also suggesting that redevelopment of listed and pre-1918 properties should be forbidden.
Will it work?
Supporters of the idea, which has been pushed most enthusiastically by Mr Gove, argue that giving local people more of a say in how their area is developed could prevent issues with gentrification and over-building. It could help prevent valued local buildings being torn down to make way for luxury, unaffordable housing, or prevent unwanted new housing schemes which blight a local area.
Critics, however, point to a potential increase in NIMBYism (not in my back yard), neighbourly quarrels and big issues in the Government meeting its housebuilding targets if too much power is given over to locals. The Government already appears to have quietly shelved its 300,000 new homes a year pledge, and former housing secretary Robert Jenrick has said it would miss its manifesto target ‘by a country mile’. It could be years before the output hits even 250,000 a year once more.
Meanwhile, the street votes policy has been labelled ‘slightly bonkers’ by local councils, who will be the ones dealing with the referendums and potential disputes as they happen.
Local authorities have reacted with a healthy degree of scepticism to the proposals. Many view the policy as adding undue complexity to the planning system and experts fear it will make the process far more chaotic.
Some will welcome the idea of more powers for locals; Gove himself is one of the biggest champions of the idea, which could increase its likelihood of coming to fruition. However there are many with concerns over how it would work in practice.
Some will believe in its attempts to appease MPs and voters in traditional Tory heartlands – who reacted furiously to the proposed Planning Bill and the plans to make it easier for property developers to build without repeatedly needing planning permission – the Government may have gone too far the other way in placing planning powers into local people’s hands.