How can we make street votes work?

A drawing of eight semi-detached houses. Four are green with a tick above them, indicating that they have ‘opted in’.

Tucked into the middle of the much-anticipated Levelling-Up Bill, published this week, was a small but radical idea called ‘street votes’.

Contrary to what some sections of the media humorously imagined, ‘street votes’ are not a proposal to allow your neighbours to collectively hold a referendum on whether they like the look of your proposed kitchen extension. It is actually a clever, innovative idea that reaches right into the roots of some of the tangled, broken incentives at the heart of our planning system today, and tries to rewire them. The idea has been successfully promoted by the (consistently brilliant) Create Streets, and it has won interest from across the political spectrum. Quite rightly too; because as ideas go, it’s a really good one.

To understand why, we need to briefly step back and understand how planning works today.

Why ‘street votes’ are a good idea

The strange thing about our current planning system is that most of what goes on in it is not actually ‘planning’ at all. It is ‘development control’. It is reactive, not proactive. Instead of us collectively deciding what kind of places we want, then getting on and building them, we have a system whereby each individual landowner must, on a case-by-case basis, ask for permission to do something and – basically – everyone else tries to stop them. At every decision point, there is only one winner, and many potential losers. This creates a deeply adversarial system, heavily reliant on a committee of elected referees to make the final judgement — which is a pretty thankless task. It is a slow, intimidating and expensive process, to be braved only by the thick-skinned, well-heeled or highly-profit-motivated.

The first consequence of this is obvious – most homes and streets see relatively little development at all, while battles rage over greenfield sites on the edge of town owned by large private developers. Other consequences are less obvious, especially the ways this system makes local authorities dependent on large developers, who are then able to negotiate-down their contributions to community infrastructure, build poor-quality places and trickle new properties onto the market.

Currently, the main exception to this ‘discretionary’ system is the General Permitted Development rights. These are the small changes you’re allowed to make to a property without applying for planning permission — such as adding a skylight, or a small extension. There are tight rules to follow, but as long as you stay within them, you don’t need anyone’s permission.

Look around almost any neighbourhood in the UK and you’ll see that these development rights have been incredibly popular with homeowners. However, understandably (because they apply everywhere), they can only allow you to do a very limited range of things, in a very limited way. For example, if you want to add an extension to your house, the general rule is that the materials must match the original house. So if your house is pebble-dash, the extension must also be pebble-dash, despite the fact that there are cheaper, less carbon-intensive ways of extending a home (using timber-cladding for example) that leave the house overall looking significantly more, not less, beautiful. So why not let a whole community give themselves permission to add that type of extension anytime they want to, within well-defined design rules, creating a kind of new street-vernacular?

Of course, it doesn’t only have to be about small alterations. The great prize of this approach would be unlocking suburban densification: for example, turning two storey houses into three or four-storey frontages; or developing neglected back-alleys into mews houses; or replacing semi-detached houses with two or more (zero-carbon) townhouses.

If just one individual were to put in a planning application to do such a thing to their property, there would be absolute uproar, and their application would almost certainly be refused.

But what if the whole street decided to do it at once?

If even just a fraction of the communities in Britain decided to do something like that, it would result in the creation of many hundreds of thousands of new, zero-carbon homes across the UK, without even touching the greenbelt (unless we wanted to). It would also drive a huge boom in the green construction industry.

If it seems like a magic trick, it isn’t. It works because it is built on the recognition that, ultimately, planning is the means by which we give ourselves collective consent to develop— in exchange for reassurances as to the quality of that development and fair contributions to improving community infrastructure and services. There is no reason why the only way to do that should be through this exhausting, expensive, unpredictable, case-by-case game of one vs all. Why not also allow communities to give themselves permission if they want to?

And it works because it is mutual: each person gains only by allowing their neighbour to also gain in the same way. Everyone wins at once.

But.

Except there’s a problem. How to do it? When you start thinking about the details, it’s not hard to see how this could all go wrong.

When we think of the planning system, we automatically think of all the 20th century administrative practices that come with it: thick PDF documents prepared by consultants, application forms, committees, votes, decisions, appeals.

To even think about the idea of every street in the UK emulating this way of working: appointing an urban designer, holding consultations, drawing-up a valid design code, having it checked against local policies, revising it, holding committees, leafleting, then organising a referendum is utterly exhausting. It could also be expensive (in time and money), and add a significant potential burden onto local planning departments that are already feeling overstretched. So that’s the first problem.

The second problem is that, if we’re honest, we all know that community politics can get pretty toxic. Every street has at least one guy who is that guy. So we’re not just talking about doing design-by-committee with our neighbours, we’re talking about doing design-by-committee with Alan Partridge on the committee.

The third problem is that people’s attitudes don’t change overnight— they evolve. And so do communities. People move-out, people move-in. So a proposal that might be rejected one year might pass the next. So we’re not just talking about holding one referendum once, but a potentially endless cycle of referendums, year after year.

The fourth is that, while many neighbourhoods in the UK are well-defined streets, many are.. not. They have a variety of layouts, types and styles, and perhaps less well-defined groupings or boundaries. Tricky.

And fifth, whilst communities can and should have a powerful voice in shaping the design of places where they live, it can be incredibly hard to reach agreement and form proposals to vote on. Whilst most of us do agree on successful, beautiful places when we see them, not everyone is able to immediately visualise what might be possible for their own neighbourhood — or how they might feel about it — until they see it and have had time to privately reflect on it for a while. Nor will everyone have the time to research all the policy parameters they need to think within. There is huge scope for confusion, frustration, mistrust, misinformation, false-binaries and arguing at cross-purposes. For example, I’d predict we’d have to spend a lot of time explaining to people that they don’t have to use these rights if they don’t want to. Even with the help of incredibly skilled designers and facilitators, design debates could quickly become derailed and distracted by style wars, tribalism or fixation on single issues (such as car parking) before any serious proposals can be formed.

Simply put, we are not going to be able to unlock a more organic, distributed, citizen-led approach to planning consent in the 21st century if we are trying to do it using the centralised, bureaucratic tools and methods of the 20th.

How could we make ‘street votes’ work?

So how could we do it? The most obvious part of the answer is to use the world wide web because… it exists. Allow people to organise via intuitive, accessible, easy-to-use web services, just as we do in pretty much every other aspect of our lives.

But it’s not just about the technology. We can’t just transpose the same offline ways of working to the online world: workshops, consultants, committees, votes, on Zoom. There aren’t enough Jackie Weavers in the world to make that viable. We need to take advantage to the different ways of working that the web makes possible.

So here are two ideas.

Opt-in

The first idea is to not use a ‘referendum’ style model at all, but instead use an ‘opt-in’ approach.

It would work like this. A single, national team would be responsible for curating a library of common design patterns: that is, a comprehensive menu of things that you might let owners do to a property. These could range from small changes, like adding an extension, or retrofit works, to large changes, such as densification or changes to the public realm.

An image of a menu of development projects or ‘patterns’, including a timber-clad rear extension with a green roof, a cycle and bin store plus dropbox, and the demolition and replacement with townhouses.

Each pattern would come with its own rules about how it is allowed to be implemented, to what types of property, and in what context. In some ways this is not unlike how general permitted development rights work already, but the range of patterns can be much more diverse, and the rules can be as nuanced as you like, even covering materials, colours, proportions and performance requirements. Some patterns might be mutually exclusive: so you can do either A, or B, but you can’t do both, others might be complementary: C goes well with D.

Each pattern would be documented with example photographs or renders, so anyone can see what it looks like, and any evidence that exists about the likely impact on the area, and on people’s lives. It would also contain the correct, pre-approved legal wording, ready to be copy and pasted into a design code.

A mockup showing one of the development patterns in the library. It has several sections of information attached, including a summary of the rules, such as that new buildings must be zero-carbon.

This national development rights library would be continually evolving, and fully open source, so anyone can suggest new patterns, or propose improvements to a pattern.

Next, local planning authorities would be able to decide which patterns to allow in their areas, and where. In effect, they would be filtering and customising the menu of development rights that are available for communities to opt-into.

The menu of patterns again, but the local planning authority has approved three of the with a green ‘tick’ and blocked two of them.

Now it’s up to citizens to choose from those patterns. But they don’t need to come together for a big workshop (unless they want to), and they don’t need to hold a big, all-or-nothing referendum. Instead, each individual resident can log in anytime they want, browse the patterns at their leisure, and ‘opt-in’ to the development rights that they would like to have, and that they wouldn’t mind their neighbours also having.

Basically, it would work like tinder. If enough people ‘swipe right’, everyone involved gets a notification that the threshold has been reached. They’d get a final opportunity to confirm or change their mind. If they confirm, that development right gets adopted with a legally-binding design code, which they can use (or not use) anytime they want.

A mockup of a mobile phone screen. At the top a GOV.UK header bar, and the title ‘Opt-in to development rights’. It then shows an image of two townhouses. Below that, a bar showing that 60% of the required people have already opted in, and if you opt-in that will take it to 70%. At the bottom, a big green button labelled ‘opt-in’.

Throughout, it would all be anonymous. You wouldn’t be able to see which residents have opted-in and which haven’t. All you would be able to see is how many more need to opt-in before the threshold is reached.

Finding the right threshold

This raises another question, which is: what should the threshold be? How many people is enough?

And this is where we get to a second idea: maybe there doesn’t have to be just one answer. The threshold that needs to be reached for a development right to be adopted might vary from pattern to pattern — that’s to say, it depends on what is being proposed. For some small changes it might seem reasonable that you only need your two immediately-adjacent neighbours on each side to opt-in. Whereas for other changes, maybe you would need a significant percentage of the whole street, the properties opposite, or even the whole neighbourhood to opt-in. One size doesn’t need to fit all, and it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

Preventing coercion

Ok, but there are still some potential issues. For one, the obvious risk of elderly or vulnerable residents being coerced into opting-in by their neighbours, landlords or by unscrupulous developers. This is where local authorities would have to take a role in checking that elderly or vulnerable residents are making decisions freely, and whether any financial inducements are being offered.

Investing in community infrastructure

There is also a very strong danger that private development could outpace the community infrastructure needed to support it (for example, schools, GPS, trees or bike lanes). To deal with that some of the development rights (for example ones that involve increasing the number of homes) would need to have an appropriately large levy formula priced into the pattern. The moment that development right is adopted, the levy applies, but you don’t have to pay it straight away. You only have to pay it when you come to sell the property.

Especially in areas with high land values, that levy payment serves a dual purpose: not just to pay for community infrastructure, but also to deter speculators who may be seeking to capture the uplift in land value that occurs when development rights get adopted.

Find out what works

The other great benefit of this approach is that it means we don’t have to get it right first time. We can test it out, and find out what works, what goes wrong, and what’s popular, tweaking the patterns and the process until we get it right.

Like most innovative ideas, the odds that we will get street votes right first time is almost zero. But if we do it in a way that allows us to learn, adapt and improve the model as we go, it begins to feel… almost inevitable, simply because it works with the grain of people’s incentives, instead of against them. It sees communities as part of the solution, not merely as customers or complainants.

As we look around at the multiple crises we face today, it is hard to argue that that isn’t, at very least, worth a try.

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