Blog: 5 May 2016Why Self-Build?

Tom Rice

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Tom Rice

Senior Planner

Reading office

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It is well rehearsed that we are not building enough homes in the UK. Custom and self-build homes provide an additional pipeline of supply that may not suffer from the same blockages that volume housebuilders can run into. For example, self-builders are motivated by the need to complete their project and house themselves. They are also dedicated entirely to the project in hand, not trying to juggle an entire portfolio of sites. Custom builders too, as a relatively small and specialised industry, are likely to need quick returns on their investments so will need speedy completions.

A criticism often aimed at our planning system is that it fails to deliver distinctive places. Custom and self-build takes the design element from a handful of professional urban designers and architects and opens this to a mass market of aspiring homeowners. Innovative uses of materials and sustainable technology can pump diversity into a street where no two homes are the same. It is important that creativity is controlled through broad design codes, but they must not be so onerous to discourage involvement.

There is an unravelling discussion about the relationship between affordable homes and custom and self-build properties. Literature from government and custom-build groups suggests that they are more affordable, especially for self-builders since they aren’t factoring in a profit margin to their build costs.

The more investment a household makes in the design and construction of their home, the more likely they are to take pride in their community. This benefit is compounded if it is a group self-build project, where a number of households come together to build a street or small neighbourhood. This helps to create a community before the first home is even occupied.

However, if custom and self-build bring with them all these benefits, why then is it not the way we build most of our homes? I believe there are three key obstacles standing in their way:

  1. Where land is affordable it is not developable, and where land is developable it is not affordable. This may seem like a sweeping generalisation, but it is a challenge faced by many custom and self-builders. Planning policies are largely blind to who builds our homes. It doesn’t matter if you are a volume builder or an individual builder, the effects of your proposals are subject to the same rigorous assessments. Larger firms with capital assets can afford to outbid smaller competitors on sites with the most potential for meeting the rigorous standards of planning policies. The leftover land is often in unsustainable locations – smaller villages, the open countryside and in areas with few public services or amenities. In these instances, land may be cheaper, but the hopes of winning over the planners are limited.
  2. The availability of affordable finance. Lloyds Group has reported that financers saw self-build mortgages as a headache; each loan needing a bespoke assessment of value and risk, and that risk is often perceived as more than minimal. Investment in an unbuilt product means there is little for the bank to reclaim in the event of a default. The additional risk and administration of these mortgages drive up their cost,  presuming one can be obtained at all.
  3. Lack of information/publicity. Shows such as ‘Grand Designs’ have demonstrated the quality and freedom that custom and self-build homes can achieve. While this has helped raise their profile generally, it has arguably portrayed them as a hobby for the rich. Conversely, in 2013, BBC’s ‘The House that 100k Built’ followed households trying to build their own home for £100k or less. This showed how innovative designs can keep down build costs, although the budget didn’t include land costs and it was unclear if it includes professional fees. Nevertheless, custom and self-build is not publicised widely and it is probably fair to say that most people do not consider it a path to home ownership.

Government has pushed hard to address these obstacles through the introduction of new legislation and policies. The Custom and Self-Build Housing Act (2015) has introduced a requirement on Local Authorities to keep a register of interest, and to use this in making Local Plans and taking decisions. National guidance is also clear that the needs of self-builders and custom builders needs to be taken into account when assessing the housing needs of an area.

As these commitments start to trickle down into Local Plans and manifest themselves in planning policy, we will be keeping a very close eye on Government’s grand designs for the industry.

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