A major barrier to the market urbanist’s ability to make the case for building more housing is the question of aesthetics. When you refer to density in cities, it’s easy to picture large brutalist towers and the slum-like conditions that can be seen in much of the developing world. Of course, this isn’t what we advocate, but it is a problem we have to repeatedly address. Homeowners, whether we like it or not, are a powerful voter group and they want to live in areas that look nice.
Fortunately, the British Government has found the golden mean of housing plans by accepting the results of the Building Better, Building Beautifully Commission.. The key takeaway of this report is street-voting. This represents an excellent middle ground between the seemingly opposite need for housing to be popular, and the need for housing to be plentiful.
The current system used in England fails to provide a fair way of measuring public views on plans. This works by assessing the views of nearby residents through a consultation. This allows any resident to attend, or write in, laying out their views on the plan. It may sound democratic, but local consultations are notoriously unrepresentative of a community. Those who take part are overwhelmingly middle-class, property-owning white people who stand to benefit from a housing shortage. Rather than taking into account the views of the local area, this method merely measures the views of those who would be economically burdened by addressing the crisis.
The city as a commons
What we’re left with is what social scientists would call the tragedy of the commons. This is where you have a common-pool resource where individual use of that resource depletes the stock for other parties. Cities can also be understood to be “the commons” in that they are non-excludable and are subtractable (easy to manipulate). The traditional response to this argues that the only feasible solution is government intervention to prevent overuse of the resource.
However, Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom famously showed that the commons do not have to be tragic. Ostrom devised a framework of how common pool resources can be managed—one that applies perfectly to housing. The most important of these is her argument that rules and decisions must be made democratically, and that these decisions must be adaptable to local conditions.
So, how does one create a system of regulating house building that empowers local interests, and is readily adaptable to them? Street voting— a policy that empowers each individual street, or commons, to vote on a design code. Once this is voted upon, then any new housing proposed to be built that complies with this code is automatically permitted.
It was this policy that became a key feature of the recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautifully commission. Their report fulfils the “traditional urbanism” vision of Sir Roger Scruton in a way that also addresses the urgent need for more houses to be built. Indeed, the clearest examples of this vision are in the terraced townhouses of Bloomsbury and Bath: both significantly denser than modern suburbia.
The Government response to the street voting proposal was remarkably positive. Whilst they have yet to reach a definitive answer, they have explained that they’re supportive of changing “the nature of permitted development to enable popular and replicable forms of development”. This may not be a full endorsement but this, combined with the new proposals in the Planning for the Future White Paper to allow the construction of additional stories to houses without a full planning consultation, do indicate a desire from the Government to deliver meaningful housing reform along the lines of Elinor Ostrom.
Although the Commission was led by a social conservative in Roger Scruton, its findings represent a coalition with the growing YIMBY community in the United Kingdom. In addition to conservatives, there’s been growing support for street voting amongst market urbanists like John Myers of London YIMBY and Sam Bowman formerly of the Adam Smith Institute.
There’s a perfect marriage to be had between the need to build plentifully and the public demand to build beautifully. No, it’s not the ideal plan to develop cities (if it were politically feasible, Japanese style zoning would be the way to go), but it just might be popular enough to allow for meaningful long-term improvements in the housing sector. By using the principles of Ostrom, the tragedy of the commons can be overcome. Should Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, back street voting then it would be a big win for the Government in addressing the dire housing crisis Britain has suffered for too long.