How Street Votes could end our housing heartbreak

Sep 26, 2022 10:00 AM

Freddie Poser is Director of PricedOut, the national campaign for affordable house prices

Being a renter can suck, and it seems to get worse every year with higher rents, unfair deposit deductions, no-fault evictions, application letters, and new listings being snapped up in mere seconds. What can we do? One path is to reform the rental market to give tenants more protections. Another, complementary, path is to improve the renters’ bargaining power by increasing the supply of properties on the market. But raising supply has been politically very difficult, with many reform efforts foundering on the rocks of public opposition. Street votes are different. While it might not change the world tomorrow, it might just deliver supply where other efforts have failed.

We all know renting can be a nightmare. Rents across the country are rising at unsustainable rates, with parts of London seeing over 13% rises just this year, not to mention the ways landlords exploit their market power to squeeze tenants. One way we can make this better is expanding the range of legal protections tenants have. Generation Rent and PricedOut work together on this front frequently along with other members of the Renters Reform Coalition and we have won improvements. In 2019 the Government passed the Tenant Fees Act which protects renters from charges from their landlords and recently the Government set out its plans to end unfair Section 21 evictions in a White Paper. 

These reforms all contribute to a more stable renting experience and do make things better but they’re only part of the picture. To make renting more affordable we need to increase supply of new homes. This is clear to see when you think of properties let moments after coming on the market, or flats with 250 viewings: there simply aren’t enough places to live. This hands power to landlords and can blunt the effectiveness of renting reforms - if you have nowhere else to go it can make your technical, legal rights close to moot. The evidence is clear: building more puts downward pressure on rents and that doesn’t all need to be affordable, study after study shows that supply is at the heart of unaffordability in the market.

We’ve seen, however, that it can be incredibly tough politically to deliver even minor expansions in supply. When central government tries to enforce new building from the top, like Robert Jenrick’s failed planning reforms, we see opposition from all corners. Again and again we see that people feel there’s nothing “in it for them” to support development of new homes – so why would they do anything but oppose it?

The alternative is a system that makes development a net-positive for everyone. Instead of local residents gaining nothing from new development, we give them a stake in its success. This community-led alternative has been shown to work across the world, in cities from Tel Aviv to Seoul and Vancouver. All of these different schemes share one common idea: turn housing development into a win-win. Under these rules, residents vote on proposals and, if they are approved, gain part of the financial rewards arising from the new homes.

A number of think tanks have adapted this idea for Britain in the form of Street Votes. The concept is pretty simple: a street can vote to give itself the right to redevelop. This can mean adding anything from a simple extra “granny flat” to replacing a detached home with flats. The idea is that property owners stand to gain economically from saying yes. ven if they don’t use the permission, their home would be worth more if they sell it. This takes development from a nasty fight to a win-win. This acts entirely in addition to the existing planning system, meaning it can only ever enable extra supply.

It may seem like this is a tenant’s worst nightmare but there are a huge number of protections that make this incredibly exciting for renters too. Most importantly only residents vote so it’s tenants, not landlords, who get to say what happens in their street. If a street vote passes then the landlord legally has to give each tenant back a year of rent to use the planning permission. This, combined with requirements for them to share the uplift with the local council, means that everyone from tenant to landlord as well as the wider community will benefit. Let’s also not forget that in enabling extra supply this will put downward pressure on rents, making housing more affordable for every renter.

I won’t pretend that Street Votes is a silver bullet to fix the housing crisis. PricedOut and Generation Rent will keep fighting to see reforms that enable new supply as well as protect renters from predatory landlords. But I’m excited that this could make a real difference in some of our least affordable cities. Street Votes is going through Parliament right now so if you want to see real action on the housing crisis, sign our petition to tell the government that renters support street votes.