Housing has rarely enjoyed as high a political profile as it does today. A combination of the housing crisis, the abandoned planning bill, the government’s flagship levelling-up programme and it being led by one of the highest profile Cabinet Ministers Michael Gove as well as a slew of recent Tory electoral punishments in which housing was thought to have played a central role have all ensured that housing is now a major part of the government’s legislative infrastructure. So it assumed a pivotal role in this week’s Queen’s Speech, ironically delivered for the first time by a Prince of Wales who himself has had a profound impact on the UK’s architecture and urban development landscape over the past forty years.
There were few surprises policy-wise; much of what was included had been previously announced in various guises. Long awaited mechanical adjustments to social housing and renting are planned, with two bills that will include commitments to provide a firmer regulatory framework for private and social tenants and a pledge to later this year remove Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions, a measure first proposed under Theresa May’s premiership.
The more radical reforms were, perhaps inevitably, contained in the section relating to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration bill, itself published a day after the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. This formalises many of the policies trialled in the February White Paper and contains the residue of Robert Jenrick’s now largely abandoned Planning White Paper. These include plans to replace Section 106 Agreements with an Infrastructure Levy and allowances for local plans to be produced more quickly.
But arguably the Bill’s headline proposal was concealed in Prince Charles’ perfunctory commitment to ensure that “the planning system [is] reformed to give residents more involvement in local development”. Legislatively this translates as Street Votes, Policy Exchange’s radical plan to give residents more power to determine the future of their streets and neighbourhoods.
Widely misreported after the Queen’s Speech as local referendums that could potentially veto neighbours’ extension plans, Street Votes now appears to be a central pillar of the government’s plans to reform and democratise the planning system. Less abrasive than the controversial proposed zoning system probably felled by last year’s Chesham & Amersham by-election, it nonetheless promises to modestly and responsibly increase housing supply in a way that enfranchises residents and promotes sustainable placemaking.
Will Street Votes solve the housing crisis? By itself no. But it certainly seems aligned with current more nuanced and granular government thinking on housing which, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not best expressed in the Queen’s Speech but in an interview Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove gave beforehand. In it Gove consistently declined the opportunity to reaffirm the government’s target of building 300,000 homes a year but instead stressed that “arithmetic is important but so is beauty”, an indication of the extent to which Policy Exchange’s Building Beautiful programme has captured ministerial thinking. The implication therefore was clear, quantity as a key government housing performance indicator is out, quality, as perhaps exemplified in the Street Votes model, is in.
But the government needs to tread carefully here. The public might not mind all that much if Whitehall housing targets are missed as long as the quality of what is built is perceptively improved. But a government that fails to deliver on both fronts is unlikely to be either forgiven or re-elected.