John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.
After years of increasingly bitter and divisive argument, both sides dig in to their positions. They trade insults and then shots. A battle royal begins.
Brexit? No: the Government’s proposal to give you a ‘permitted development’ right to extend your house upwards by a floor or two.
The outrage has soared to heights many times those of the proposed buildings.
Kit Malthouse with his #MoreBetterFaster mantra and Mr Brokenshire’s clever team are determined to augment the nation’s housing stock.
Since 1947, the number of UK homes has never grown at the net percentage rate of the 1830s, let alone the far higher rate of the 1930s. We have failed to build enough high-quality homes for decades. That drives down wages in places with more homes than jobs, and holds people away from better opportunities in places with more jobs than homes. Fixing that would boost fairness, wages, economic growth and opportunity.
Stasis is less controversial but has caused a slowly-mounting human and economic catastrophe. Brokenshire and Malthouse are absolutely right about the need for improvement.
The current proposals are a small step back towards the historic position.
Until the 1940s, you could build nearly anything on your own land. Since London’s Great Fire, simple regulations were written on fire safety and later to guarantee light, air, and back yards at least ten feet deep. After the 14-storey Queen Anne’s Mansions caused a backlash, height limits were reduced in 1894 – to 80 feet.
The current need for discretionary planning permission for almost everything dates from 1947. Few would argue it has engendered the best buildings across the land.
Nearly all of our most-loved heritage – centuries of it – was built before 1940.
And yet one small move back towards clear rules, not dependent on some official’s fiat, has caused an outcry.
The Royal Town Planning Institute has magisterially weighed in, arguing the proposals will damage “character and amenity”.
Has the current system preserved character and amenity across the land? And if those would be even more jeopardized by simple rules, how were so many stunningly beautiful places built in prior centuries?
We all know that furniture is different. The best pieces appreciate over time, but the banal sinks in price until you must pay to be rid of it.
Back when houses were priced more like furniture, people would pay for good design.
Investors love things guaranteed to get ever scarcer and more expensive – like planning permissions since the new 1947 system. In the South-East, most of the value of a home is the planning permission, not the building, nor the land. Even a concrete box with a door and a window will gain value over time.
Planning permissions have ballooned in value until they now account for some two-fifths of the entire net worth of the nation: around £4 trillion.
Why spend money on design when houses go up in price anyway, and when most new buyers are painfully stretched to afford something their family can just about squeeze into?
Is it surprising that good design has almost disappeared?
Putting the genie back in the bottle will take time. The RTPI is right that new rights to jam on any old storey or two will not give the best results.
Other countries have clear, simple rules with angles and setbacks to preserve light for neighbours, as we once did. That would help, but how can we avoid a forest of concrete excrescences?
There is one proven way to get higher quality buildings: a design code.
True, some of our prettiest places were built without such codes: the Cotswolds, or Hampstead.
But in many others – Edinburgh’s New Town or Bath’s Royal Crescent – a single landowner set standards for high quality.
That, then, is an obvious way to allow more housing that almost everyone can support. Happily, the consultation has given hints in that direction.
Who should write those codes? I suspect Sir Roger Scruton, chair of the new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, would agree that it should not be the housing Ministry.
Even setting good design rules across a single county, town or borough is almost impossible – a Herculean task given the range of existing buildings, even before the great style debate begins.
What’s more, many places simply don’t want change.
But there are plenty of others where the locals would be delighted to take back control and pick designs that would allow them to add rooms for growing families or an additional flat for a grandparent or adult offspring.
We already have neighbourhood planning, but it works best in small villages where people know each other. Good luck getting ten thousand people in a borough to agree.
Smaller is better. In existing towns or cities, the simplest decision unit that makes sense is the single street – with limits and rules to protect neighbours on other streets.
What is missing, then, is a simple way for the residents of single street to choose their own designs and vote by, say, a two-thirds majority to permit the extensions that make sense for them.
How can we expect the layperson to come up with high-quality design? With a great British institution that worked for centuries: the pattern book. Architects can compete to offer designs over the internet. Picking a design that makes sense for your street should be easy. The designs that give the best results – and the best prices on sale – will soon become known.
The way forward is to learn from how our favourite heritage was built. Design and quality are key. The best results come when local people have the power to improve their own communities and homes.