How and where we live inherently affects others. People also have deep financial stakes in land and property. Moving is costly. These three facts together mean that the rules determining what sorts of homes we can build, where they can be built, and who can live in them are inherently contentious. Improving upon our current situation is so complex that it often seems impossible, leaving an unsatisfactory status quo. But my latest report for Create Streets on the recent history of a London neighbourhood called South Tottenham suggests another way.
Housing is a paradigm example of something that displays spillover effects. These can be positive or negative. Handsome new houses could enhance my view but reduce my daylight and sunlight. Those new neighbours might be noisy. People living near me will keep shops near me alive, but congest my streets if they drive. Their ‘eyes on the street’ may prevent crime, but they may equally well commit it themselves. Their children may take a school place I wanted for mine. We all know that exactly where we live is one of the most important factors in our life.
This crucial importance of housing, and the large spillover costs and benefits it has, are why it is so political, and why efforts to improve housing face such trouble. In general, people are highly sceptical of change, since it often costs them, or risks doing so. Better stick with a mediocre status quo than risk losing out on something vital through change.
However, there are rare cases where win-win reforms benefit almost everyone. One such reform has been taking shape in recent years in a north London neighbourhood of a dozen or so streets with perhaps a thousand Victorian terraced houses and another thousand flats and maisonettes.
South Tottenham is home to a thriving Haredi Jewish community. Residents have large families, but are unable to leave the area due to religious rules: they may not use any mode of transport other than walking on Shabbat, but must get to synagogue. This led to severe overcrowding, with as many as four children often sharing a single bedroom.
Residents tried to extend their homes to relieve the pressure. However, these extensions, often pushing the law to its limit, caused resentment around the neighbourhood, since they were often seen as ugly and out of sync with the existing urban heritage.
Community leaders, councillors, and planners got together to see if there was something they could do. They came up with a design code that assuaged locals’ concerns about ugly visual blight with very strict rules on façade pattern, materials, ornament and other design questions. But as well as the tighter rules, it gave locals increased rights to extend – as much as 1.5 full storeys, rather than merely a roof extension.
It has been incredibly popular, with something like a fifth of properties in the neighbourhood using the maximum possible extension permitted during the ten years the policy has been in place. And it has won the consent of the broader community too, with around 3.5 times more respondents to a consultation saying they approved than disapproved. The new right has endured, and there is no movement from residents to overturn it now that they have it.
Obviously this neighbourhood has many special features. But the key ideas of the reform are transferable to other places. If, like South Tottenham, other Victorian or Edwardian neighbourhoods can get enough signatures to show that such a move is popular, they should have the right to a strict new design code, to allow and regulate extensions of this type. They too could then benefit from more living space, or an extra room for a lodger, grandparent, or grown-up child. Or, if they prefer to keep things exactly as they are, that’s up to them too.
Housing Secretary Michael Gove has shown himself to be open to a whole range of innovative ways of building the homes people want in the places people want to live, with the consent of the existing community. South Tottenham gives us an example of one way we can, and should, do this.
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