28 August 2019

Is ‘local housing for local people’ a good strategy?

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“So many of the parishes in our district are merrily approving more houses around their village,” an official from Oxfordshire fumed to me last month, “and that’s against Council policy!” I had to pinch myself: living in London, it’s normally the reverse.

Making sure local people benefit is one obvious way to gain support for new homes. I assume that’s why the new Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has announced that a proportion of new homes will be available for local young people to buy at a 20% discount.

As we travel around the country, we often hear the objection that locals won’t be able to afford the homes being built. And we have long said that giving local people more power to demand what they like, if done correctly, could radically improve the supply of new homes.

The devil is in the details. Will Mr. Jenrick’s proposal lead to more homes being built through increased local support, or will it just mean a different use of sites that already have approval? Will the cost be borne by the landowner, or by people who would otherwise have moved into some of those new homes?

Done badly, it could become a version of a Chinese hukou system, where people find it very hard to move from the place where they were born.

It’s great to hear Mr. Jenrick say that he also wants to focus on improving the planning system so that we can finally get enough homes. We suggested a few easy ways to ensure more local support for them, and there are plenty of others.

His desire to make better streets with more housing around town centres and stations is exactly why we suggest allowing residents of each street the right to vote to set a design code and give themselves planning permission to add more housing on each plot. It’s popular and it would help with his goal to increase homeownership.

The Prime Minister’s new consigliere, Dominic Cummings, is keen on innovation. One radical and powerful thing Mr. Jenrick could do is set up a new Housing Innovation Unit within the housing ministry to test what works. You would think that would be the point of a central planning system, after all, but the Ministry hasn’t carried out a single randomised controlled test in planning in its history. The NHS and our education system are world leaders in scientific testing of what works. It’s time for the planners to catch up.

There are many ideas to fix housing. Ministers move on, and normally their favourite ideas die with them. That’s why we still have a housing crisis fifty years after Sir Peter Hall called for urgent action. If Mr. Jenrick wants to make a permanent mark, a new Housing Innovation Unit could make his political reputation for decades, and leave the few incorrigible NIMBYs out there spitting with rage about all those beautiful, popular new homes.

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John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people