The government’s intention to run trials of “street votes” was announced to an unsuspecting public in a flurry of TV interviews and articles on Wednesday. But in fact, a huge cross-party coalition of community figures has been calling for trials for several years. Street votes are a new idea to allow small local communities to decide to take the lead on allowing more housing on their street, subject to strict rules to prevent harm to others and with a requirement to share the benefits with the wider community.

The idea is simple. Residents get the right to propose street-wide design codes, subject to limits to protect others. If an overwhelming majority of them agree, planning permission is granted to everyone on the street, to use if they wish. This proposal could include small extensions for extra bedrooms for children, or extra space for the whole family; or it could mean granny flats, or even, in some cases, extra homes. It all depends on what that street prefers. 

Many streets will prefer to do nothing. But those streets that want to do more will be allowed to do so. And the idea is purely a supplement to the existing planning system. Householders remain free to apply to the council for other permission in the normal way.

Residents not on the street will also benefit through generous funding to councils for additional local amenities and services. There are strict rules to prevent any increases in traffic congestion, loss of daylight or the other complaints often caused by new development.

The biggest costs of development are highly local – mostly affecting people on the same street. This issue is what street votes are designed to solve. But development can have other, broader impacts. Under street votes, these impacts will be addressed in two main ways. Firstly, there will be strict maximum limits on what sort of development is permitted under street votes. Usually anything more than a typical Victorian or Edwardian street would be impermissible. Secondly, any economic uplift must be shared broadly with the community, to cover community needs.

Under the normal planning system, homeowners worry about the negative effects of new developments that they have no control over and from which they reap no rewards. Street votes are designed to turn that around. The goal is to turn NIMBYs into YIMBYs by ensuring residents share the benefits of new developments approved through street votes, and that residents on other streets see improvements to local amenities, rather than deterioration.

How do homeowners benefit? Well, some find it difficult to afford enough space for their family, and wish they could do more with their existing property. Others would like the space for relatives to move in, perhaps in a granny flat. Still others would like to convert a disused garage into a mews house for an adult child, or rent it out. And a few of the most ambitious streets might decide to replace run-down postwar housing with terraced housing or even flats behind attractive mansion block designs.Who is in favour of trying these ideas? A vast array of figures, from Sir Simon Jenkins and former Housing Secretary Greg Clark MP to Will Tanner of Onward and Dan Wilson-Craw of Generation Rent. The street votes proposals have been painstakingly developed over years to ensure that they should only bring improvement to places, not harm. Street votes give a way for residents to take back a little control to improve the places where they live. We should try them.

John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY, which campaigns to end the housing crisis and make better places with the support of local communities, in alliance with the growing global YIMBY movement.