John Myers: A good design code is crucial to make new housing popular with local communities

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, and campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

Robert Jenrick, the radical and ambitious Housing Secretary, has just announced two new ‘permitted development’ rights so that owners can add up to two floors to post-1948 houses and post-1948 freestanding blocks of flats, without planning permission.

Both have numerous restrictions. Bungalows can only add a single floor. For upward extensions of houses, councils have to sign off on privacy, sunlight, and the appearance of the front.

He also announced that from September there will be no restriction on switching between using a building as a shop, restaurant, café, creche, daycare, or for financial or professional services, light industry, or indoor sport. Pubs and hot food takeaways will still need permission for change of use, as will community halls and small shops selling essentials if there’s no other nearby.

All of this is just a hint of what is to come in the September White Paper on planning reform.

How much impact will this have? Some shops will become restaurants or offices. Some more housing will be built. Some flats will be added above existing blocks. Many large families stuck with too few bedrooms would be grateful for more. Some houses will get subdivided into maisonettes to create more homes.

A few penthouse owners will complain, if their lease doesn’t guarantee them the top floor. Some might sue their solicitor for not telling them it didn’t.

Some next door neighbours will complain if the council does not care about overshadowing of their garden, or their sudden inability to sunbathe nude in it.

Some atrocities of the 1950s and 1970s will get extended upwards. The legislation requires that the new materials should resemble the existing house in appearance. The neighbours might wish the existing materials had been buried in an unmarked grave and replaced with something attractive.

Another slight issue is that once you have extended an ugly two-storey house to become an ugly four-storey house, it is often uneconomic to knock it down and replace it with a beautiful pair of terraces or a mansion block. More fundamental improvement of the planning system cannot come too soon, or we may get permanently locked into many square miles of bad land use.

And the residents of conservation areas can breathe easy – unless they wanted more living space – because they are excluded from these permitted development rights. I’d guess the government wants to see the results before letting these rights loose in conservation areas, if it ever will. Of course, if you let unpleasant things happen except in conservation areas, residents not living in conservation areas will rapidly get the message and apply to become conservation areas themselves. Then you end up with even fewer new homes.

Conservation areas are the most damning admission that the normal planning system is totally incapable of ensuring that new development improves places, rather than harming them. Instead, wealthier areas get a second layer of control, to prevent most of the crud that the normal system would allow.

If you do not trust your new reform enough for it to apply in conservation areas, how much do you really trust it to ensure better places?

Hopefully the government has also considered that restaurants cause greater fire risk than other uses in the ‘shop and other’ category. It might be better at least to require consent for restaurant use from the owners of any properties directly above. They could sell if they are unhappy, but friction from taxes like stamp duty mean society might still end up worse off overall from some of these new restaurant kitchens. Perhaps the government didn’t require consent from flats above on advice from its lawyers, because the enabling statute for ‘permitted development rights’ doesn’t clearly allow it.

The trailed ‘consultation’ of neighbours about upward extension disappeared from the new rights too, probably for the same reason. So far as I can see, even if the local community picks a design code in their neighbourhood plan, the planners are under no obligation to follow it when approving the upward extension.

Everything is still to play for in the new White Paper. It will probably move towards a kind of ‘zoning regime’ recommended by the Prime Minister’s Housing Adviser, Jack Airey. More certainty is long overdue.

But the four trillion pound question is whether they can fix participation and the benefits of new development so that residents actually welcome it, or whether we will remain stuck with a system where successive governments have to impose more housing against local wishes, and invariably fail to produce anything like the needed amount of the right quality in the right places.

The most powerful force in politics is the pleasure of homeowners in seeing their home and their area become more cherished and more valuable. The only way to fix housing is to let that force pull in the direction you want. Ministers who try to push against it will, like so many of their predecessors, generate a short-term but unpopular boost in housing that ultimately fails.

 

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Author: John Myers


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