Sajid Javid will make British cities great again by making houses soar higher

This article appeared in the Telegraph, but it was behind their Telegraph Premium paywall, so I've shared it in full here.

People living in Britain's cities, especially London, face staggering rents and mortgage payments, often for tiny properties. Families have to move miles out of the city centre to afford the space for children. At the same time there is fierce resistance to new developments that would ease some of the pressure of the housing crisis. Designs are bland at best—reruns of post-war monstrosities at worst—and locals themselves derive next to no benefits directly. Sajid Javid's latest housing idea is the first bright prospect in decades of urban policy: scrapping some height restrictions to encourage the kind of Pimlico-style development people actually like.

People call them NIMBYs, but it's easy to understand why locals oppose most developments when they're so aesthetically unappealing. Where regular, they are endlessly uniform, unchanging and blank; where varying they are contorted into seemingly-random "iconic" shapes. There is no consistent, harmonious variation within a pattern, windows are dull squares with no decoration. Blocks abound with tiny seemingly-pointless balconies and the materials fade and stain over time. Most people find them baffling—I certainly do.

But what locals usually don't know is that these are effectively deliberate decisions of the planning system. Planners are systematically biased to award more permission when developers employ "starchitects" who have won awards for iconic designs. And social enterprise Create Streets has shown how they ban the narrow streets, steep staircases, and thin properties that are necessary ingredients of widely loved Georgian terraces in Notting Hill, Islington and Greenwich. Even the balconies are down to a requirement for all flats to have a certain amount of outside space. By contrast, properties that are in traditional styles typically fetch higher prices, given similar characteristics otherwise.

After the second world war utopian city planners believed that terraces were unhealthy and antiquated, and that the future was not in urban, multi-use, cosmopolitan living, and mass transit, but the car. They forced those living in un-bombed houses out, and replaced swathes of London with tower blocks. In so doing, they actually substantially reduced the population and density of inner London, which is still far from recovered. And bits the bureaucrats didn't get to are some of the most popular in London—two-up two-down workers houses on Roupell Street in Waterloo will fetch perhaps £1.5m.

Of course, the planners were wrong: cities still had much more to offer, and successful cities like London, Oxford, Manchester, and Cambridge are sucking in people from around the country, continent, and world. Sajid Javid's scheme offers us a way to correct the bureaucrats' mistakes in a way that involves and benefits members of local communities: they can stop ugly tower blocks and develop in a way they like. But they can allow the development that brings them more shops, restaurants, businesses, jobs and money.

Javid proposes removing height restrictions, to allow people to add storeys onto their houses, and to allow whole streets to be turned into terraces, in a patchwork, voluntary fashion. His dream, like that of Prince Charles, is a London of mid-rise mansion blocks, four and five storey terraced houses, and tenements—a London more like central Barcelona and Paris and less like suburban Moscow. His method may work: the urban forms he covets fit in a lot more floor space for a given plot.

One benefit would be allowing more people to live in London and other growing cities. Many cities in the UK are thriving, but too many Brits are unable to live in them: our planning system blocks most potential developments, and local residents block many more. Javid's plan offers a way around this, by giving control back to locals, who can decide whether they want the windfall gain from extending their building up, or selling it to others to develop. The reform also offers families a chance to have a bit more space. Research, including the Redfern Review, released on Tuesday, suggests that it is rising income, rather than more people, that drives housing demand. When people get richer they are less willing to live in cramped conditions.

Britain's cities were once unimaginably grand. We cannot take back the damage the Luftwaffe and city planners have inflicted on them, but we can rebuild them anew. We have far more wealth and technological ability than the Edwardians, Georgians and Victorians ever had, and yet many of our city centres are drab, dingy, and dead. Sajid Javid's housing plan offers us a chance to restore cities to their former glories—and go beyond—at zero cost to the exchequer, and in a way that gives citizens control. Hurrah for the housing minister!