In recent weeks, I've given over some time to helping out Nasba (that's the National Selfbuild Association) by engaging with the government in a consultation exercise to see if we can somehow push selfbuild up the planners' agenda, and to make life easier for amateur builders. Whilst major housebuilders have long been represented in the corridors of power by professional lobbyists, the selfbuild community, by its very nature, is fragmented and transitory and has been neglected in discussions about the national housing mix.
That this discussion is taking place at all is due in large part to two people, one being Ted Stevens, the driving force behind Nasba, the other Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister. Somehow selfbuild seems to fit in with all these coalition buzzwords we keep hearing like Localsim and the Community Right to Build (or CRTB as I heard it abbrvd. to), and bodies hoping to speak up for the "typical selfbuilder" are currently being welcomed with open arms at both the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and No 10.
At Ted's behest, I am chairing one of four committees tasked with coming up with ways of improving the selfbuilder's lot. My group is looking at the many regulatory hurdles facing amateur developers. This is definitely my big society moment because the fee for all this work is a big fat nothing - not even travel expenses - and my hope is, consequently, that this all doesn't take too long. We've been promised some sort of outcome by July. Let's hope so, because the thrill of sitting in Elland House, home of the Department, with a security name tag around my neck and a cheap day return in my pocket won't last long.
On March 28, I attended a gathering of the committee chairmen together with key DCLG bods to review where we had go to so far, and whilst there was lots of encouraging words spouting forth, we also came bang slap up against a little semantic problem which quietly rankles away in the background and from time to time rears its ugly head. That is how exactly do you define "selfbuild." Where do you draw the line? It sort of matters when you are trying to engage with agencies wanting to promote selfbuild, especially if the term starts appearing in planning guidance documents, which is something we all hope will happen.
So why is selfbuild hard to define? Well, there is the classic selfbuilder, the type who turns up at the Homebuilding & Renovating or Grand Designs shows, who has a plot and wants to know how to build a house. Then there's a small number of hardy souls who get together to do group selfbuild, some private, some as affordable schemes. There are also professional builders who build regularly for sale and sometimes build for their own occupation, and there are amateurs who become serial selfbuilders and sort of graduate into professionals. Statistically, these guys are selfbuilders but they don't really belong in spirit. Then there are converters and restorers. And there are lots of people who have homes that they want to improve and can't decide what to do with them: should they renovate or rebuild? To them, it's often a very tricky decision, but one thing they never consider is their status as selfbuilders or not. To them, it's just getting building work done whichever way suits.
And then it struck me that the very term "selfbuilder" has been defined by others, not by selfbuilders. It's not a term widely used in other countries and I don't think it was much used in this country until the 1990s. The reason we have a sub-group of house builders called selfbuilders is that we have a much larger group of professional or speculative builders, and it's the very dominance of this group which makes selfbuild appear to be something of an anomaly in need of a leg up.
What's peculiar about the housebuilding market in Britain is the dominance of spec builders. In the UK, the big builders do deals in smoke-filled rooms with landowners and planners and carve up the countryside into mega-plots, and then serve up whatever they choose to build. It doesn't really happen in other Western nations where the consumer has remained in pole position and builders have customised their output to fit consumer choice. Countries like Germany have a very different housing market where individual plots are quite easy to locate and develop, and the housebuilders compete for their custom, just like a kitchen or bathroom company does over here. There is no notion of selfbuilding in Germany, anymore than someone in the UK who orders a new kitchen is a self-kitchener.
So if we are really going to make selfbuilding much more commonplace over here, then we have to do something to address the dominance of the spec builders (i.e. stop it). I'm not sure this is the message that Grant Shapps really wants to hear, because so much of the policy debate is dominated by numbers, and there is a feeling that if the Coalition doesn't get loads more new homes built then its housing policies will have failed. My worry is that they are looking to boost selfbuild simply as a way of providing additional new homes, not because it is as an alternative and superior procurement route.
And in seeking to harness selfbuild as a way of simply adding to the number of new homes being built, the government may be missing a trick, because what we are dealing with here is a pretty basic human desire to build a nice nest. Whether that's building a new home or extending and improving an old one is not a central issue to this DIY army. And, if you think about it logically, it's not central to the wider issue of our housing stock. Too much effort is being expended on making the cake bigger: not enough on checking out whether it still tastes OK.