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Housing Beyond Markets and State

November 17, 2021   By John Myers and
In partnership with

It’s not NIMBYs preventing housing being built – it’s a system that creates conflict by design.

Local planning authorities should be given the chance to let communities say Yes.

Housing Beyond Markets and State sets out the powers that councils and communities need to fix our broken planning system.

Council planners need extended powers over who builds in their areas and how quickly they do it. This should include the freedom to tax developers sitting on empty land.

Communities should be involved in street-level planning, ‘gentle intensification’, and consensus decision-making. The report is full of inspiring examples of places pioneering this approach, from Liverpool to Zurich.

Executive Summary

We do not build enough homes to meet the housing needs of the country and have not done so for decades.

Despite successive Governments’ attempts to set targets, to fund development and, especially, to overhaul the planning system, these reforms have yet to produce enough homes in the right places. This has created a crisis of affordability, which harms people and undermines economic performance.

Housing supply is caught between a complex set of planning requirements, balancing national and locally generated policy, and what are ultimately simplistic quantitative delivery targets.

These targets neither recognise the qualitative needs of an individual place, nor account for economic circumstances found within it.

As a consequence, the current system creates an adversarial culture that inclines people to be hostile to any new developments, rather than building consensus to create win-win solutions.

At the heart of the tension between communities and development is a reaction to a system that has excluded residents from important decisions about their place at the key moments. The inability to genuinely influence key decisions about major housing development has led to strong feelings of disenfranchisement.

Community Review Panels (CRP) demonstrate how communities can have genuine influence on local development. This approach is an alternative to the standard models of developer engagement and local consultation which are often adversarial in nature.

Panel members offer expertise on the experience of living in their local area, and on its needs. They review development proposals at confidential, pre-application stage, when there is still a real opportunity to influence their final form. The panels are run by their members, meaning that decisions about the future of the group and its meetings are taken by the group and implemented by the chair and professionals.

A key emphasis of the CRP is ensuring that the panels are demographically representative. The panels are made up of local people, appointed through application and group interview to give views and advice that complement those provided by professionals. Members are selected using seven selection criteria to ensure the panel is demographically representative of their area.

The Southwark Community Review Panel is one of five established groups in London. It was set up to bring together people who know Old Kent Road well and want to contribute to its 20-year regeneration programme. The panel comprises residents, employers, employees and others who frequent the area. Their views will complement the work of Southwark’s Design Review Panel, helping to ensure the highest quality of development along

Old Kent Road, which will include 20,000 new homes, schools, parks and community facilities, and is anticipated to generate 10,000 new jobs.

Such panels can work well where the impacts of a proposal are similar for everyone, so that there is no risk that minority groups who will suffer a large and disparate impact will be forced to use other political processes to try to block proposals at a later stage.

If we are to end the chronic undersupply of homes, we need to develop a community-powered approach to planning and housing, starting with a radical change in how we think about the places where we live.

Because of the complex interrelated effects of each property and space on other inhabitants, these places should be seen as a commons. This refers to the outcomes collectively generated by inhabitants and all those who take part in activities in the area, with communities themselves managing precious local resources.

In realising these principles, government and the planning system need to work with the community, meeting people’s desire to participate in decisions that affect the places where they live.

This would involve including them in discussions about their built environment through participatory techniques and other innovative approaches.

Lancaster Cohousing is an example of a community-led development driven by a common vision to create a sustainable place to live. It demonstrates how through clearly articulated shared values and aspirations, and good collective governance, a group of residents can come together to coordinate and create new and high-quality development, as well as manage its on-going maintenance.

Often referred to as the Forgebank Community, Lancaster Cohousing is an intergenerational community of 35-41 member households in the village of Halton, near Lancaster, in the North West of England. The company was registered in 2006 to develop housing and communal facilities for its members. The site was purchased in 2009, planning permission granted in 2011 and the first homes were completed in August 2012.

As a not-for-profit company, all major decisions are made collectively at General Meetings using a collaborative consensus process. Making decisions by consensus in this way often involves members making some compromises, but it can also result in creative and better solutions than original suggestions.

This decision-making approach is also important for building community capacity. Smaller decisions within the development are made by ‘service teams’ and all adult members are expected to join a service team where they dedicate about 10 hours per month to help run the community.

To embed a community-powered approach in housing and planning, we recommend the following three strategies for central and local government to consider:

  • Give local planning authorities more powers and incentives to meet local housing needs, including the freedom to impose a modest tax on the value of unused consented sites.
  • Enable a more collaborative culture to replace existing adversarial local planning, moving away from the existing adversarial approach by investing in the ability of officers and members to work with communities.
  • Create the necessary framework to enable communities to have more of a role and say, making greater use of participatory and deliberative approaches in planning, from local forums to citizens’ assemblies.

Rather than yet another top-down set of ‘radical’ planning reforms, a truly radical community-powered approach could change attitudes to development and help spur the large-scale housebuilding boom that the government desires and this country needs.

A Housing System in Crisis

The undersupply of homes has led to a crisis of affordability. If you added up the prices of all the homes in the UK today, it would be approximately three times higher than the actual cost of building that many homes.

Only 23 per cent of the new homes built in England in 2019-20 are considered affordable. The proportion of affordable homes completed has varied considerably over the last decade, peaking at 40 per cent in 2010-11 and dipping to as low as 16 per cent in 2015-16.

Affordability issues have meant that increasing numbers of people are homeless or without suitable accommodation. An estimated 280,000 people were homeless in England in 2019, a nine per cent increase since 2016, and recent years have seen over a million households on local authority housing waiting lists, many of them living in overcrowded temporary accommodation. About 8.4 million people in England are living in unaffordable and unsuitable homes:

  • 1.4 million are living in sub-standard housing
  • 3.6 million people are still living in overcrowded accommodation
  • 1.7 million are living in homes which are unsuitable for their needs.

Many millions more are living far away from where they would prefer to live (nearer to employment opportunities, to friends or family), or are paying far more than they should be paying in rent.

Not only does this deprive hundreds of thousands of people of appropriate housing, it also undermines wider economic performance. Studies have shown that housing shortages have caused a significant reduction in overall average wages, welfare and GDP.

The Barker Review 2006 found that lower rates of house building can lead to reduced labour mobility and constrained productivity, contributing to an overall cost in terms of economic welfare.

The need for a new approach

In order to meet increasing demand for housing, before even starting to meet existing unmet demand, we will need to build 340,000 new homes every year until 2031. However, only around 148,880 homes were built in England in 2020 – many of them in the wrong locations. While there was a general upward trend in housing completions before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, rising from 109,440 in 2013 to 177, 880 in 2019, this was still far below the level of house building we need to see.

The Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) was formed in 2011 in response to the area’s long-term decline, and the demolition plans that saw many residents forced out of the area.

Their story demonstrates how, despite all odds, with determined coordination and persistence, communities can steer planning decisions in their favour. It also shows how working iteratively opens unique opportunities for more collaboration with a wider range of partners, which spreads risk and helps build community capacity and confidence in the long-run. This approach also recognises people’s different needs and priorities and can lead to positive outcomes that better meet local needs.

Prior to the CLT forming, a group of remaining residents within the four streets around Granby Street saved many buildings from demolition. The resident activists also experimented with very small-scale interventions, ranging from cleaning neglected alleyways and guerrilla gardening, to improving the immediate environment and landscapes using creative approaches.

These small activities brought people together and the residents gradually took on bigger initiatives like organising a neighbourhood market and street parties. These added to the vibrancy of the area and increased Granby’s appeal as an area for potential future regeneration.

The residents’ determination to improve their area continued with the forming of the Granby Four Streets CLT in 2011, following the closing of the Housing Market Renewal Programme. Residents met up with a few partners and began to draw plans together for an urban regeneration process with very small incremental stages.

The following year, they won a small urban garden competition which attracted a £500k loan, allowing them to enter into negotiations and raise match funding. This led to the council agreeing to transfer 10 of the 200 empty properties in the area to the Granby Four Streets CLT – an important basis for future community-led development. Today, the community is an active contributor to future development and regeneration plans for the area and through the CLT framework, they are determined to ensure the continued affordability of the area.

If we are to change the story, we need to try something new. This report argues that it is time for communities to play a major role in getting more homes built to meet the needs of existing and new members of those communities, now and into the future.

It is often assumed that communities will always seek to block development, rather than back it. But when people have no real opportunities for constructive participation, often their only option is to oppose.

By enabling people to take greater control of the system and to shape housing growth so that it benefits them, the current adversarial zero-sum system can be dismantled and the incentives for oppositionalism reduced or removed.

About this report

This research seeks to identify the key barriers to enabling communities to support more housing in their area, how these can be removed and what potential this could unleash in terms of the future of housebuilding.

Unlike many other failed attempts, we are not proposing a root and branch reform of the existing system. Rather, we propose supplementary processes that can work with the grain of local communities’ wishes, without jeopardising the existing supply of housing.

This report outlines the problems with the current system, which is no longer fit for purpose.

Then it makes the case for a community-powered reform to housing and planning, before sketching out the key principles of that approach.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations to help bring this vision into reality.

November 17, 2021
Authored by

John Myers and
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