Future plans: a community-powered approach to housing?

August 6, 2020  |  By John Myers, Co-founder, YIMBY Alliance,

A new Government White Paper envisages radical reform for planning. But, while it hints at a community-led approach, it also sets rules and targets to be imposed by national government. John Myers of the YIMBY Alliance sets out how a community-led approach offers a new way to tackle crises in housing and infrastructure.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the scale of current planning challenges. The impact of overcrowding on infections and deaths from Covid-19 has offered chilling proof of the need for more and better housing. Transport and other infrastructure need substantial improvement, as we try to create a more active and healthy population, move to zero net carbon emissions and answer the widespread desire for increased greening.

Neither the state or the market paradigms are capable of addressing these imperatives. A planning and housing system reliant on top-down imposition by the Government cannot ensure the best outcomes. And a free-for-all based entirely on individuals interacting through markets is neither desirable nor achievable.

In the recent crisis, some communities have performed better in some ways than government. Communities at different scales have pulled together to help each other with food delivery and a range of other needs. With this is mind, we are launching a new project that will explore how letting communities genuinely take the lead can produce more and better housing.

There is an increasing belief across the field of housing and planning that more homes and better places can be built with the support of local communities. Economics implies that improvement might be possible by empowering communities to find win-win outcomes where the benefits of new development are shared with the community.

The morass of ill-advised planning reforms over time have created an oppositional and fractious process, not a process that seeks to create value for everyone. Both residents and developers are often frustrated, while the planning and approval process is haunted by the spectre of costs and delays through litigation.

Fundamentally, the planning system controls development because voters want it to. Sustainable improvements can only be achieved by ensuring that communities have the confidence to encourage development because it will benefit them and their area.

The Prime Minister’s Special Adviser on housing has suggested a zoning system with clear rules set in advance and little or no discretion at the planning application stage. The way forward should involve more clarity on what is permitted, but many zonal systems have problems of their own. Local planning authorities also effectively have powers to create a zoning system now, using local development orders, but generally they choose not to. Any changes to the system must be workable and sustainable, leading to higher-quality outcomes for everyone.

Inspired by NLGN’s Community Paradigm, and the work of Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom, we are investigating new community-driven approaches, giving planners a wider range of techniques and powers to take stronger action at strategic level, and to facilitate local communities at different scales to steer and accept developments and changes that primarily affect them.

Ostrom’s research explores the variety of ways in which communities around the world have managed precious local resources and commons – in some cases for over a thousand years. Ostrom found principles of system design which can be useful in finding workable approaches.

Increased construction of housing could help raise additional billions of pounds per year to be used locally for infrastructure and social housing. It will also enable more housing near public transport, making better public transport more viable, with more walkable communities. That will help the environment, as vehicles produce one-third of UK CO2 emissions.

A range of additional powers for local authorities, including perhaps land value auctions or different methods of value capture, may be part of that solution. Deliberative planning techniques may also be useful for strategic decisions, so long as they are seen as a means to find solutions that can win broad consensus. Of course, consensus will not always be possible.

Neighbourhood planning cannot be a complete answer to these challenges. The RTPI has recently endorsed the potential of ‘microdemocracy’, where small communities could opt into a menu set by the planning authority to allow more housing or other changes in their small area, where they see benefits for them. The new White Paper signals openness to that approach. In each case, full resources and powers would need to be given to the local authority to ensure success.

We will be gathering evidence from local government practitioners, members and wider partners involved in this agenda, to understand more about the challenges and possibilities for radical community-led change, and publish a report in the Autumn. If you would like to get in touch to contribute to our research, we would be very pleased to hear from you.

Please contact project leads:
John Myers, Co-founder, YIMBY Alliance
Pawda Tjoa, Senior Policy Researcher