Policy Exchange wants to give residents a vote over demolishing their own streets. Julia Park spots a few flaws in their arguments

Julia Park

Densifying the suburbs is not a new idea, and not a bad one. We’ve felt for a while that “the compact city”, espoused by Richard Rogers back in 1999, has worked rather too well in London and that it’s time to look at the compact suburb. But it’s not easy, politically or practically.

The risk with piecemeal intervention, as advocated in Supurbia, is that it makes everything messier. Inserting new homes at the bottom of deep gardens is usually a compromise in terms of access, servicing and outlook, and risks annoying the neighbour whose garden backs on to it. Ad hoc street infill and random “top-boxes” are equally tricky, and as soon as you start slotting in new homes, wider development becomes more difficult. That’s why I lean towards larger, planned interventions; selective demolition of the most run-down stock to release enough land to make a meaningful difference and set a precedent for others to build on. Strong Suburbs, the latest publication from Policy Exchange, therefore sounded interesting.

The authors are Ben Southwood and Samuel Hughes. Southwood has been head of policy at the Adam Smith Institute and is now head of housing, transport, and urban space at Policy Exchange. Hughes is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and a research fellow at the University of Oxford. He was the research assistant to Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith, the chairs of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

To describe the report as radical would be an understatement. Clearly enamoured with Living with Beauty (the report of the BBBBC), the authors describe “a need to empower local people over the design of the buildings they would be obliged to live with. The need for this is heightened by the fact that the tastes of the local planning authorities often diverge from those of the public as a whole…”. The idea is that, street by street, homeowners should be allowed to get together and vote for their homes to be demolished and re-built at much higher densities (preferably with neo-Georgian terraces judging by the illustrations).

Describing a win-win scenario, they estimate that in their “conservative scenario”, “…the average participating homeowner would make £900,000, while the local authority would get an average of £79,000 for every new home delivered”. Overall, they suggest their model would result in “140 million new square metres of usable floor space or two million new homes, generating £1.1 trillion of gross value. Of this £505 billion is spent on construction, £479bn [goes] to homeowners and £118bn to councils”. Small-fry compared with their “best-case scenario” which, they claim, could yield 40 million new homes.

Here’s how it works. Having gained a mandate for demolition and rebuild, a group of residents would submit a proposal for a “street plan”. This must include a design code prescribing the form that the redevelopment would take and, “…may even include a complete design specification defining a ‘fast-track to beauty’, automatically granting permission to building that corresponds to the specification”. (Not quite the erudite prose we might expect from academics, but we get the idea – more permitted development.)

The authors suggest that the government should consider funding the RIBA and the new national design body to run “competitions for elevations”; that winning elevations would be free and that “residents may partner with a local architect… [who] could charge a fee, but they would also have an incentive to provide drawings pro bono, given the opportunities to work they could receive…”.

Maximum storey heights are prescribed based on current population density. In areas with fewer than 20 inhabitants per hectare, the cap is two storeys; for areas with 20-60 it’s three storeys; with 60-120 it’s four, and above 120 people per hectare, five – that’s before the mansards and basements which potentially take you to seven storeys. They go into extraordinary detail about protecting rights to light, set minimum ceiling heights, include sections of mansard roofs and basements, and promise net zero carbon, recycling, green spaces and much more.

But there are also huge gaps in the report – mainly in real-world experience. Barring the odd landlord (who wouldn’t get a vote but presumably would get compensation), the authors have assumed that the residents will be homeowners. Conceding that, “…street votes may be held in streets of socially owned homes just as they may be on streets of privately owned ones…”, the fact that mixed-tenure has become the norm, or that a significant proportion of additional homes should be affordable housing, seems to have escaped them.

It is not clear whether the £900,000 pay-out to residents is net profit or whether they have to pay for a new house out of that. Not clear, either, whether you could take the money and run, before trying the same trick in the next street, or how to deal with a resident of 90 who voted no because she can’t face any upheaval, or a family that have just spent thousands refurbishing their home.

And the predicted new numbers are based on the assumption that the average internal floor area of the existing and proposed homes is 85sq m (the average size of existing homes in England, and equivalent to a typical two-bedroomed house or a smallish, three-bedroomed flat). However, almost all of the illustrations, including those of five- and six-storey terraces, depict houses with individual front doors – “mansions” far larger than 85sq m, and substantially bigger than the vast majority of homes they would replace. Based on this scenario, the uplift in density would actually be quite modest (essentially just what you gain by eliminating the gaps between existing homes), so the £900,000 pay-out feels ambitious, to put it mildly. They do mention that blocks of flats could be integrated, but even at six storeys it’s difficult to see how the terrace model could sustain the cost of a lift. A sizeable problem given that the government is considering making Category 2 the minimum accessibility requirement, and that means step-free access.

Astonishingly, the report is silent about the design of the homes themselves. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on the authors that the residents will mind as much about the inside of their new home as they do about the outside; probably more. Each will have a different idea about the layout and spaces they want or need – but will be constrained by the same set of generic, pre-determined, out-of-context, formal façades with rigidly aligned, uniform windows – and a developer who wants to make them all the same.

There seems to be a glitch in the rules that allow streets to “agree by supermajority” too. Here’s how they explain how the voting would work: “The street plan is adopted if (1) at least 60% of votes cast are in favour, (2) residents from at least 50% of households have voted, and (3) a resident in each of at least half of the voting households voted in favour”.

I’m no mathematician so I consulted my colleagues at Levitt Bernstein. The question I asked was this: Based on these three criteria, in a street of 100 houses what is the least number of votes needed to carry the vote? The overwhelming consensus was 30. Hardly what most people would call a democratic mandate, and more likely to divide neighbours than unite them.