Gove’s Street Votes: brilliant innovation or irrelevant gimmick?

Posted on 16th January, 2024


This is Blog No 57


Just before Christmas , the Government launched a consultation on its proposals for Street Development Orders. It only lasts six weeks, so we all have till 2nd February to respond.

Those who have followed the tribulations of Ministers as they sought to deliver ’planning reforms’ will have noticed backbench enthusiasm for street-level referendums since the concept  was first floated by the Policy Exchange think tank and its widely-ridiculed claim that it could result in 100,000 new homes over 15 years or so.


Michael Gove is said to have ‘loved the idea’ – not least because of its flavour of increased public engagement in the planning system. Indeed, his predecessor, Robert Jenrick had launched a White Paper called Planning for the Future which ran into a barrage of criticism as a ‘developers charter’ and communities nationwide worried that their voices would be silenced by the wholesale introduction of ‘permitted development rights.’


In much the same way that the Uxbridge by-election prompted a Conservative party re-think on net-zero, the Chesham & Amersham by-election of 2021 put paid to many of Jenrick’s plans and backbench pressure obliged Gove to demonstrate that public involvement would still feature prominently in any planning reform.


And doesn’t it sound wonderfully democratic and inclusive? Just imagine. After decades of being told what we can and cannot build on our streets by faceless bureaucrats and possibly corrupt Councillors, we – the residents - will now have a right to vote on changes to our street. How brilliant! None of this consultation nonsense – just vote!


I’m sorry to be such a party pooper, but, of course the newly-invented Street development orders are nothing of the kind. What they are is a way for some street-specific planning proposals to go ahead by by-passing the normal route for gaining planning permission. There will not be tens of thousands of such projects. Having looked at the dynamics of this alternative route, my guess is that the Government will struggle to inspire more than a handful of proposals – if at all!


One look at this consultation – with its mind-boggling complexities and pre-conditions and one longs for the simplicities of the old European Environmental Impact Assessment Directives. Seldom have I been tempted to give up the will to read a consultation document, let alone respond to its 55 questions. With every page, I became more convinced that these plans are just bonkers! Sorry to use such a technical term.


Somebody obviously likes the idea.


The Mail online proudly headlines Residents will be able to make their homes up to SEVEN storeys tall under Michael Gove's new plans for local street referendums.

There is also a ‘Streets votes’ website where its advocates don’t even tell you who they are!  An international commentator called Ebenezer Mensah (which could easily be an anagram) is enthusiastic – “The UK’s approach to urban development and property modifications may well be on the brink of a significant transformation, thanks to this innovative policy”.


The reality is that the practicalities of this new process will make them almost worthless for anyone to consider.

To illustrate the point, be aware that before any resident gets to vote on anything, the following has to happen:

  • You must define a ‘street area’ – far from straightforward as the proposed definition includes “the properties on each stretch of road starting or ending at a crossroads or as a minor road at a T-junction or where there is a gap between buildings of more than 50 metres” And there’s more …
  • You need to be a ‘qualifying group’ – “at least the prescribed number, or the prescribed proportion of persons of a prescribed description.” And a formula that varies this from streets with 10 to 25 properties.
  • You submit a signed and witnessed letter backing a proposal
  • The proposal includes:
    • A map,
    • The proposed ‘draft order’ – can only affect residential properties and avoids a wide range of exclusions,
    • Relevant impact assessments,
    • Details of consultation with statutory bodies,
    • A declaration of engagement with the local community, (Now that IS interesting. Is it a first?)
    • A street design code including street elevation drawings – and conforming to six principles that include provisions on adjoining areas, green spaces, active travel etc,
    • Evidence you’ve taken account of transport impacts, historic legacy, flood risk, bio-diversity (must check with Sec of State first) and any Local Plan considerations
  • Submission to the Planning Inspectorate for Validation and Examination (which could be oral)

I’m obviously sparing everyone the details, but the consultation has many little nuances and rabbit warrens with which to entertain the most enthusiastic consultees. Besides, we can all have our views on the conduct of a local referendum – even if the electorate may number about 20 – 60% of which needs to approve the project before anything is actually built (not forgetting observance of the Code of Construction Practice!)

What are we to make of this nonsense?


Clearly we have a serious housing shortage, and maybe there are teams of architects itching to develop small-scale, street-specific building projects which Councils have unreasonably failed to approve, and where they are convinced local residents will willingly support – even if it costs them. Possibly there are entrepreneurial residents who represent a consensus view among their neighbours that they are determined to build extensions, build on gardens, add more storeys and generally welcome massive building works because the extra value of their properties will offset the inconvenience of a few years of upheaval and disruption. I wonder whether this scheme is intended to cover ‘demolish and rebuild’ schemes. If so, someone has decided to keep quiet about it.


On the other hand, most people want to preserve what is good about their streets and address problems without the terrifying bureaucracy of the Street Development Order process. And who wants to risk acrimonious disagreements with your neighbours about whether or not to force changes upon which there may be little agreement?


There is clearly a case for YIMBY – Yes in my back yard, and there are respectable approaches to this issue. On the basis of this consultation, however, this is not it.


Is it really about public involvement?

Or about our housing shortage?

Or is it a headline hugging gimmick that can be quoted by those seeking election in the coming months as evidence that 'planning reforms' are making a real difference - and will solve our housing crisis ?


There are times when we have to call out Government policies as being poorly thought-through, unlikely to achieve their objectives and a waste of legislative and administrative effort.

I predict that consultees will mostly agree.


Rhion H Jones LL.B


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