Has Jacob Rees-Mogg just come out as a YIMBY?

Jacob Rees-Mogg. Image: Getty.

Many might feel that calling Jacob Rees-Mogg the Marmite of British politics would be unfair to a perfectly innocent spread rich in vitamin B12. Could anyone be more high Tory, except possibly some of David Cameron’s former chums, albeit in a very different sense?

But the champion of Conservative Brexiteers has written a strident call to end the housing crisis and drastically improve the supply of homes, calling for reform of parts the green belt and aiming for a “gradual stabilisation of prices nearer the normal multiple of three times earnings”. The “economic and social costs” of our housing crisis, he writes, are “severe”. 

But, unlike Prime Minister May and her predecessors, Rees-Mogg and his co-author Dr Radomir Tylecote – a name that could always get him a job in a science fiction film if he leaves the Institute for Economic Affairs – actually have some proposals that might make a big difference.

They omit many things. Council housing is not a plank of their platform. Housing associations are nowhere to be seen. But councils will like the call for councils to receive more tax money: “Local governments would also be rewarded by being able to keep the revenue they generate when they allow housebuilding.” Whisper it softly, but councils could then use some of that to build housing themselves.

Councils today too often lose money by allowing more homes to be built. One admitted to me it actively resisted housing for older people because of the social care costs it would have to cover. No wonder we have too few homes in the right places.

The authors also endorse the YIMBY argument: give small local communities more powers to approve building of types they like, as a supplement to the normal system, so local residents can share the benefits. Why don’t we allow residents of a single street to set a design code and approve upward extensions or more drastic replacement of existing semi-detached housing, up to five or six storeys high, so long as surrounding streets are protected? Streets of suburban semis could, when owners wish, become denser streets of attractive mansion blocks or terraces, with a dramatic increase in square footage and value for the average suburban street into the bargain.

As they point out, swathes of our cities consist of two-storey houses built over the last hundred years. Few would mourn if local residents chose to let them be replaced with something better. Homeowners will like the increased value for them from the planning permission, even as individual flats and houses become more affordable through increased supply. That would also give the advantage back to small builders, increasing competition for the large housebuilders who have come to dominate the market.

Rees-Mogg also says ‘selective’ green belt reclassification is ‘necessary’. (Cue outrage from a certain soon-to-be-former prime minister.) Land that has become low-quality should be freed for housing. Releasing green belt land within walking distance of a railway station would be a priority. Just 3.9 per cent of London’s green belt is needed for 1 million homes, they explain. But they endorse the principle of preventing large conurbations from sprawling indefinitely, lest Bath merge into Bristol.

Some ideas are not fully explained. Will their new Right to Buy or “reverse Compulsory Purchase Order” for unused government land be vested in local people, or speculators? Their eulogy to traditional architecture will have small-c conservatives crowing and most architects apoplectic. After “take back control”, Mr Rees-Mogg tells us to “take back pastiche”.

Given that Boris Johnson was the favoured candidate of the ERG, which Rees-Mogg chairs, can we expect Prime Minister Boris to promptly implement these ideas, with a radical boost to the quantity and quality of homes we build? Or will he be a bit distracted by something else? What could possibly be more important?

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, which campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.