John Penrose is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, and is MP for Weston-super-Mare.
Housing is one of the hardest policy problems ministers are facing. It seems that practically every option has major drawbacks. Towers scar the skyline; urban sprawl scars the countryside.
The British half-expect new buildings near them to be ugly and awful, but agree that our housing shortage is a key national problem, and worry whether their children or grandchildren will ever own a home.
But there is an alternative: gentle density that comes with the agreement and support of local communities instead. One way to deliver it is through a new scheme from Create Streets called Create Mews.
Mews were once just rear service entrances and stables for the horses and carriages of grand houses. But once horses were replaced by trains and cars, these old stables have been transformed into picturesque terraces of cottages, with higgledy-piggledy facades in English vernacular styles and cobbled streets. Many of Britain’s most remarkable, beautiful, and heavily-Instagrammed streets are mews.
For some reason, we hardly build any mews today. There are a few, notable exceptions, including Peter Barber’s Beechwood Mews and Pollard Thomas Edwards’s Woodside Square, which are already highly popular with residents and commentators alike. But they are far rarer than in Georgian and Victorian times.
Fortunately, Create Mews shows that there is scope to change this. Many twentieth-century streets were originally built with parking alleys; lanes running behind the gardens lined with garages. Like the stables that lined the Georgian mews, these have often become redundant as cars become larger, and many are now disused and dilapidated, or used as storage sheds instead.
If we allowed them to evolve and develop into inhabited mews, in the same way as their Georgian and Victorian predecessors did, we wouldn’t just be creating beautiful new places to live: we’d also reduce pressure to build hulking and unloved tower blocks in areas that don’t suit them, and it would be greener because we wouldn’t have to concrete over even more green fields.
They’d make financial sense and be more sustainable because they’d use more of the existing infrastructure of roads, GP surgeries, water pipes and power cables, rather than having to build it all from scratch. And they’d reduce the lengths of commutes because more people could live within walking, cycling or a short bus ride from work.
The Create Mews idea would let local residents prepare a ‘block plan’ to upgrade and improve spaces like disused garages and parking alleys in their blocks, following a style guide to make sure no-one was overlooked, lost too much light, or couldn’t park anymore.
If two thirds of them voted to supported the plan they would all have permission to develop their old garage, alley or shed whenever they wanted, but if the vote didn’t pass then things would stay as they are, so no-one would be forced into something they weren’t happy with.
It’s a proven approach expanding on the ‘street votes’ idea, which I proposed in Parliament and which Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, described as ‘cracking’. Street votes give local residents far more power to decide what their neighbourhood needs, and give them a share and a stake in the economic gains which the new building brings – instead of having identikit ‘anywhere-ville’ developments forced on them in court battles with big developers and aggressive lawyers, who trouser all the profits before moving on somewhere else .
And that dissolves a lot of the ‘not in my backyard’ opposition which so many other projects face every day.
Most important of all, Create Mews and the original form of street votes both unlock our long-term problem of not building nearly enough homes for decades, under governments and councils of every political type. Unsurprisingly, not enough homes has meant spiralling, unaffordable costs for both renting and buying, which has led to more parents whose children can’t move out, more wages eaten up in rent, longer commutes, and a less-dynamic, immobile economy where people can’t afford to take better-paid jobs in areas with unaffordable housing.
It is also a political headache for Conservatives, because our Party’s success rests on home ownership, and on people having the stakes in society which it brings.
In a property-owning democracy we cannot continue building in ways that defy popular support. It isn’t democratic, it isn’t green and it isn’t right. We must find new ways to build that put voters in the driving seat, and creating new mews is one of those ways.