January 9, 2011


A post because cramming this all into tweets wasn't working.

Self-build is great. People should be able to buy a plot of land and build - cheaply or expensively, safely and minimising risk - the home they desire or need. The more idiosyncratic and unique, the better. Of course, there are provisos. Idiosyncratic within reason (upsetting a few neighbours, not building a five-storey eyesore), located in a sensible place (not sprawling out of control).

But the reality of self-build today is that the Grand Designs dream accounts for very, very few projects - and almost certainly is not what Grant Shapps has in mind when he promotes it as an alternative to a housing policy. Most self-build is pattern-book development, one house at a time. Local builder/surveyor/'architectural designer' buys plot of land, draws up their standard pattern-book house on it, gains planning, sells it on at an inflated price. Individual buys plot, can't afford or doesn't have the imagination to alter the design, doesn't want to resubmit for planning all over again, so builds the pattern-book - probably then extending it later on, under permitted development rights. Funnily enough, when the inflated land price is added to the cost of building the property, you might have been better off buying off-plan in the estate on the edge of town. Yes, sometimes people find their own plot and design their own home - but even then, they are more likely to go to a local builder and use one of their standard designs, adapted for the site and the number of kids they have. A few years on, family sells home at a profit, benefits from CGT exemption on primary residence, buys new site. These families are rarely low-income - they would get on the housing ladder another way if necessary.

Then there are the few - very few (even the Community Self-Build Agency lists under a dozen projects) 'community' schemes where a group of low-income households/individuals get together to work on a multi-home scheme, teaming up with (or forming) a housing association so they can access grant funding for 'social' housing. Fantastic - unemployed people gain skills and homes; co-ops form; sometimes interesting designs emerge. But it's a bureaucratic process (getting your scheme approved for funding is a minefield for first-timers) and requires extensive support from the housing association or organisations like the CSBA. Here, Grant Shapps could possibly make the process easier - funding pots specifically for self-build projects, not requiring housing association status, etc. Oh, funding - that would be from the already halved social housing budget. Forget it.

So, what is the aim of this 'policy'? or, what should it be? A healthy self-build sector might involve:
- Freeing up of land and less restrictive planning - more along the lines of permitted development - but what community really would approve this, under the new 'neighbourhood plan' regime? Every community wants to retain the right to reject development on aesthetic grounds. Let's remember that our current planning system stems from the middle-class revulsion at plotlands - exactly the kind of accessible land and unrestrictive planning framework that encourages self-build.
- Loan programme similar to what (used to?) exist in the States when I worked there, where low-income households could get federal loans for mutual or individual self-build projects. Note: loan, not grant. Makes a big difference - homes don't have to remain 'social', so don't have to be in a housing association, etc.
- Better pattern-book homes, or better access to finding affordable designers (let's not be precious about 'architects' here) who can actually design something that suits needs, passes Building Control, etc, without designing from scratch every time which is expensive and carries huge risk. This is what I worked on at the Rural Studio when we designed the first $20,000 House - an adaptable pattern tailored to the loan programme that low-income families could access.
- It is also worth noting that in the States (at least when I worked there) the reason that the above three criteria were met was because there was no social housing at all built in rural-ish areas. (the loan programmes also fell far short of reality, trapping many low-income households, but that's for another post.) It seems that the Coalition also wants self-build to be a replacement for a housing policy - but we doubt they will go so far as to implement the above.

We would love the self-build dream to be accessible and affordable, without exposing families to financial risk (how many Grand Designs projects involve near-bankruptcy?) and as an alternative to renting or buying off-plan. But unless some radical decisions are made, encouraging self-build isn't - in this country, with our economics and pressure on land - an alternative to a housing policy that addresses need. And as the planning policy of the Coalition is all about devolving 'radical decisions' to the local level, where they will fail at the first NIMBY hurdle, we don't see this happening.

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