Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and was co-chairman of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission with the late Sir Roger Scruton.
Think tanks, politicians, officials, and journalists come up with policy ideas all the time, but most are a flash in the pan. Often, they’re exciting, possibly even efficient, but they usually don’t have legs. The most recent Create Streets paper Learning from History by Ben Southwood has been a great success—if you don’t mind me blowing our trumpet for a moment. These ideas have play, I think, for three reasons: because they’re realistic, because they’re reusable, and because they are reliably win-win.
Learning from History tells the story of South Tottenham, a pocket neighbourhood of about ten streets in Haringey, North London. It is bounded to the North by the railway, to the East by the River Lea, and to the West by the A10.
This neighbourhood was faced with typical modern challenges—housing scarcity, high house prices and rents, and overcrowding. These fairly normal challenges are given extra edge because it houses a vibrant Haredi Jewish community with very large families.
This community holds to rules which require them to live within 2,000 cubitts, or around 1km, of their synagogue, as on Shabbat walking beyond this distance and all other modes of transport are proscribed. Therefore, unlike others families have not been able to respond to high inner-city prices by moving out to the suburbs for more space. Instead, they have been forced to cram themselves ever more tightly into two storey Victorian terraced houses.
Nor could they demolish these homes and start again. The Victorian terraces, though sometimes roughly treated over the years with pebbledash refacing, plastic doors or uPVC windows, still had substantial heritage value.
So the community built up, pushing their ability to extend with dormers to the limit, and sometimes beyond. This resulted in ugly boxes on top of houses, completely out of keeping with the existing stock.
Locals did not simply accept this. Community leaders got together with councillors and sought a way to make the solution win-win. They decided to create strict and predictable visual design guidance, requiring emulation of the original materials and ornament (known as ‘design codes’) which was straightforward and unambiguous to follow, and which gave residents the easy option to build somewhat larger extensions than under existing rights—if they kept their extensions in keeping with the existing buildings.
The result was several hundred extra extensions – over a quarter of the unextended Victorian homes in the neighbourhood. And when the broader community was consulted, a very large majority said they were happy.
Why did these ideas work? Why are they of wider national interest? And why have they been picked up, with Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, among many others retweeting a link to the paper?
Firstly, they are provably realistic. We can see pictures. It’s not just a pipe dream. It’s not a policy from a foreign country or one that has never been tried before (although we need these too). It’s something that we’ve done in the last ten years, right here in our national capital. It works.
Secondly, these ideas are reusable. We all know Victorian terraces with gables or eaves, bay windows, brick facing, and one over one or two over two sash windows. These are a key feature of our towns and cities. Where it is locally supported, it is easy to imagine how we could reproduce this policy in other neighbourhoods with similar circumstances and where neighbours agreed they wanted more space.
Thirdly, these ideas are reliably win-win. Policies that benefit a few at the cost of many are sometimes imposed, but they are usually quickly revoked, when people realise that is happening. Usually, they don’t even get that far. You can hardly blame people for opposing policies that risk making their neighbourhood worse or devaluing their homes. And you cannot be surprised if people are nervous of pro-development policies giving the shocking ugliness and inhumanity of so much that we have built over the last 70 years. However, with this approach development is de-risked. The extensions are pre-defined. And they come at little to no cost to the broader community whilst greatly benefit those building them. It is much easier to get support for reliable win-win policies like this.
Our systemic undersupply of housing, above all in the south east and other ‘hot spots’, is a generational wrong which is profoundly undermining the life chances of the young generation. We have a moral duty to resolve it. It is one big problem. But that does not mean there is one big solution. Allowing our existing streets to intensify with local support so that we create more space and more homes makes use of our existing infrastructure, is more sustainable and, done well, is provably popular. Surely part of the journey to where we need to be runs through South Tottenham.