John Myers gave this speech at the Creating Communities conference 2019 organized by Create Streets and Onward:
Thank you very much to Create Streets and Onward for inviting me and to U+I for kindly hosting. In 2017 our campaign said villages that wanted to build more homes next to the village in their own green belt should be allowed to do so.
Last year the government’s new National Planning Policy Framework gave parishes the power to do that by neighbourhood development order, subject to a requirement that the new development should still be ‘open’ (whatever that means).
And so we took one village to see an official.
‘How many homes would you like to build?’ he asked.
And the villagers, all bright-eyed and enthusiastic, said: ‘150-200 please.’
‘Ah ... given the requirement of openness in the NPPF, we were thinking you might do six to eight.’
And then we wonder why we have the worst housing crisis in the world.
Since the Second World War, we've never grown the housing stock at the net percentage rate of the 1830s – before the railways! – let alone the far higher rate of the 1930s.
Perhaps – I'll just throw this out there – in a world of gene therapy, self-driving cars and reusable rockets, we could aim to beat the 1830s?
The real problem, of course, is not lack of technology, skills or materials.
The problem is politics.
If we ignore the politics – as most housing reformers have, for many decades – we will continue to fail to fix the problem.
And yet plenty of other countries – and this country, in past times – have managed it.
Of course, solving the politics of building more homes is harder when you have a majority of homeowners or secure tenants, who will fight to protect what they have. That’s the fundamental reason why we build so few homes today, especially homes near jobs: we have far more homeowners now. And, as I’m sure you know all too well, they vote.
The English planning system was never designed to add many more homes in areas with many existing homeowners.
So we think the only way to get effective, permanent change is to solve the politics.
How? An amazing woman called Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for creating an entire new social science showing how thousands of communities around the world, given the power to do so, have achieved incredible things with the places they share – some of them for centuries. Communities in Spain, Africa, Switzerland and India have been able to manage and improve their common resources.
By global and historic standards, we are really bad at enabling communities to reach outcomes nearly everyone can be happy with.
Ostrom’s new science of ‘common pool resources’ – still nearly unknown in the UK – proves it can be done. It’s hard, but she gives rules of thumb to make it easier.
Her research implies the most powerful thing planners can do is empower local people to reach decisions to allow more homes and better places while ensuring the benefits are shared.
Neighbourhood planning can do that, but mainly in villages, or where people are united against a common threat.
In cities, neighbourhood areas are normally just too big. Generally, 10,000 people can’t agree on anything. Life on earth would be over before they could agree the designs for the fenestration.
Ostrom’s logic teaches us the ideal is to give the smallest possible group of people a way to allow more housing on conditions that suit them, so long as it doesn't harm anyone outside that group. The intention is to supplement normal planning processes, not to replace them, and allow planners more time to focus on masterplanning and infrastructure. She called the principle ‘polycentricity’.
Like our suggestion about villages in green belt, we've also suggested allowing the people on a single street to vote by a two-thirds majority to set a design code and grant permissions to extend or replace existing houses on that street, with limits to protect people on other streets. A mini neighbourhood development order if you like. We call it ‘Better Streets’.
It's wildly popular and it can increase the housing on a single suburban street by literally five times, without high rise. The design code ensures that local people will be happy with the results.
That's just one example. You could do the same for a single block of a city, or for part of a housing estate.
Trying to ram through unpopular housing in a country with a large majority of homeowners is never going to work at scale. But there are ways to work with local people to get more homes and better places. So please get in touch and work with us to find ways for local people to help you.
John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY and YIMBY Alliance, campaigns to end the housing crisis and make places better with the support of local people.