Posted inOpinion

Why ‘street votes’ may offer communities the local democracy they need

The legislative agenda outlined in the recent Queen’s Speech included a series of highly significant aims including a proposed Bill of Rights, further regulations relating to National Security, and a response to the cost of living crisis. However, I would argue that an equally significant but perhaps less visible aspect of the Queen’s Speech was the promise of ‘street votes,’ in which neighbours will be allowed to contribute to decisions over nearby developments and house extensions in small plebiscites. Many may see this as a sideshow to more pressing matters and have already criticised the proposal. Certain commentators see housing issues as contributing to the Conservative Party’s loss in Chesham and Amersham last year and architects are questioning the veracity of the scheme. However, my perspective on the proposal reaches a different conclusion. In the first part of the article, I will look at the substance of ‘localism’ as an approach to planning and politics, and how the street votes scheme ties into wider socioeconomic patterns. In the second, I will scrutinise aspects of the proposal itself and show amidst the controversies and debates, this measure offers real potential for positive change.

In their 2015 study, Simin Davoudi and Ali Madanipour cited how localism denotes ‘decentralised and grassroots forms of power.’ This definition highlights the benefits of localism for increasing civic participation and political enthusiasm. Our generation is all too familiar with surveys which indicate political apathy. A 2021 paper by the University of Kent political scientist Ben Davies and other academics, indicated that trust in the governing classes was low following the 2019 general election and engagement was further challenged by the disruption and uncertainty of Covid-19 restrictions. This trend seems to be global and offers a sobering outlook. In 2019, a survey of 27 countries by the Pew Research Centre indicated that swathes of people are dissatisfied with democracy. A report for the House of Commons Library in 2021 defined this political disengagement in the British context, positing that ‘individuals and groups are politically disengaged if they are not positively engaged (in terms of attitudes and behaviours) with the political system’ and despite sluggish increases in voter turnout since the 2001 general election, electoral participation has not returned to the highs seen in the 1950s. There is no simple way to define and diagnose disengagement, and any kind of solution will be equally complex. However, I would argue that the starting point is a localist form of politics which empowers communities, whilst respecting national and international jurisdictions. In 2010, the newly-elected Prime Minister David Cameron announced that ‘the time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today.’ It is not the intention or the focus of this article to offer a judgement on the efficacy of our country’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, but I think that whatever side of the referendum you were on, it is hard to dispute that for many members of the governing classes and those living in metropolitan areas, the verdict came as a shock. I would argue that if forms of localist governance had been implemented and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition had made good on its promise, this sense of shock would not have been as deep, whatever the verdict. These forms include more regular and smaller referenda, frequent and organised citizens’ assemblies and proper, scientific teaching about civic engagement and politics in secondary schools. In 2010, the former Conservative MP Daniel Hannan wrote in ‘The Scotsman’ that in many EU countries; ‘the centre-right parties benefit electorally from positioning themselves as the champions of local particularisms against the bureaucracy of the central state.’ Although this comes from a partisan perspective, his vote is solid. If a clear trend suggests that parties can appeal to the electorate by defending local interests from central overreach, whilst appropriately engaging with central authorities, this need not be a partisan issue. In Britain, and in other established and developing democracies, major parties can rally around devolving power over local matters, including housing, spending and public services, to rigorously-assessed assemblies and bodies. This will have the doubly positive effect of decreasing the administrative burden on the central government, whilst increasing loyalty to the government as localities would be aware they are receiving fair representation.

The second part of my argument is more conceptual, but it similarly illustrates the benefits of localism. Imagine yourself as the buyer of their dream-home, probably after decades of hard work and saving. You spend a large amount of money on a four-bedroom house – the deposit you put down and the mortgage you borrow reflect the four-bedroom aspect. Then one day, a number of years down the line, you are told that the house will no longer have four bedrooms, but three bedrooms and one will be removed. You have had no say over this process, no proper opportunity to contest it and the removal of a bedroom will obviously devalue your property. You will face major disruption during the building works, which could have a calamitous impact on your finances, quality of life and mental health. I appreciate that this analogy may well sound left-of-field, but let me explain how it is relevant. Almost every survey of post-Covid 19 restriction buying habits indicate that gardens are a key reason why homeowners buy certain properties. A similarly high number of buyers will be willing to spend more money if their garden offers a view of countryside or greenfield sites as opposed to housing or a brownfield site. The process behind a development on a greenfield site often involves a District Council liaising with a property company. District councils are generally composed of very small groups of individuals voted in by tiny electorates representing the ‘backyard’ interests of tens of thousands of citizens, even if they live many miles away, whilst many property companies have no respect for environmental issues, sustainability, aesthetics or the comfort of homeowners living near a development site. I would argue that by losing their rural view, enduring 2-3 years of heavy machinery pounding away day and night just yards from their bedrooms and seeing their property devalued, these homeowners would suffer the same absurd and catastrophic injustice as a bedroom being removed from their house. It is equally important to remember that many of the homeowners who have been affected by these problems are not first-time buyers cruising the market or young professionals who accept a decade of doss-living and house shares whilst they save up. Demographic surveys indicate that a significant portion of rural homeowners desiring peace, quiet and countryside living are elderly, retired and experiencing the natural financial and health issues endured by those of old age. The need to ensure appropriate quality of life for our most vulnerable and ailing citizens is part of my argument in support of street votes; the necessity to respect property rights and give people decisions over issues which will affect their everyday routines and wellbeing is an even greater part.

In conclusion, the proposed measure of ‘street votes’ will have many positive effects if it is implemented by consortiums of architects, urban planners, politicians, local councillors and residents. It will increase confidence and faith in our political system which, regardless of party or MP, has endured the challenges of economic recession, shifting relations with Europe and now, tensions with Russia. It will mean that through diplomatic and appropriate engagement with the governing classes and representatives, a more active form of citizenship will be accessible to all. It will mean that in order to solve the housing crisis, developments can be constructed in areas where they will not cause friction across local communities and they are therefore more sustainable and accessible. Therefore, the proposal of ‘street votes’ should not be seen as an inconsequential clause in the Queen’s Speech, but a step in a more positive and politically inclusive direction.