3 May 2011

Harnessing the energy of the DIY army

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.


  1. What holds self-builders back in this country is the lack of serviced individual plots with outline planning permission. In places like Germany, local councils take care of the service infrastructure (roads, gas, etc.) of new developments, whereas in the UK this is left to the developpers, and only the big ones can afford it. This limits self-build projects mostly to back gardens and other scrap sites that are unattractive for speculative builders.

    LSE economist Tim Leunig makes in "In my back yard: unlocking the planning system" (http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/in-my-back-yard.pdf) a very simple and effective suggestion of how local councils could easily affort to do the infrastructure-work themselves: via land auctions that leave councils with the land-price windfall that comes with planning permissions.

    If planning permission increases land value 400-fold, but land owners are happy to sell agricultural land to councils for 5-times market value in sealed-bid auctions, the remaining 80-fold value increase surely leaves councils plenty of cash for outstanding planning and infrastructure work.

  2. We have watched the changes in government and planning over the last decade as we planned and then completed (more or less..) our self build. It's very hard not to be cynical.

    From our perspective, the issue is that the planning system has evolved through a thousand well intentioned 'fixes' into something that defies serious change.

    At the same time the "guilty until proven innocent" approach to approving small scale building and improvement makes builders cautious and conservative and deters those who might self build. Far from improving the quality of our building stock, the current system rewards building down to a safe, uncontroversial minimum standard. This is defended by ratcheting up that minimum standard (at least in terms of building regs), but the end result is that our housing is defined by 'minima' and burdened by endless paperwork.

    Nor does the government help with education and regulations. As we've built, we've become aware how little most people understand of how their house actually works. Shelter is one of the basic human needs, yet we think it normal to have no understanding of how we are kept warm and dry, or what our options are. When it comes to new technologies, the system of subsidies and qualifications have made matters even worse. For example, fitting a solar hot water system is far from rocket science, yet it remains unnecessarily expensive and the domain of so-called specialist plumbers.

    Unfortunately, the response to all of this is to add some new fiddle to the planning regulations, subsidise flavour of the month ideas and create yet another group who will utterly fail to make meaningful contact with people who would genuinely like to build their own home.

    Yes, that sounds cynical, but as we've been through the process we've heard similar stories from so many other people time and time again. This should go beyond "how do we make things better?" to "how do we fix this mess?".

  3. Dave HoworthMay 03, 2011

    How do other countries do it?

    Which other countries have a system that our self-builders would consider 'user-friendly'? And what makes those systems friendly?

    (e.g. why don't speculative builders dominate in Germany?)

    Are there any comparative reviews of different approaches?

  4. AnonymousMay 03, 2011

    I agree largely with Lock Farm. It would be lovely to be less cynical, but ...

    In the early 1990s, under a Tory govt., an English rural district council I know already had a "relaxed" attitude to development. It wanted DETR permission to formally allow local residents to build their own house on their own land for their own use, subject to restrictions on re-sale - something that would hardly excite much controversy in Ireland, France or the Channel Islands.

    Such houses as this council had allowed as "exceptions to policy" tended to be modest in size. As a self-help option, this rural development saved the cost to taxpayers of subsidising social housing (then about £25,000 per dwelling, I think, I hate to think what it is now).

    One would have thought that self-help would appeal to the then govt. But the DETR did all it could behind the scenes to destroy the initiative and threaten individuals. Later, the council vanished under 1998 local govt. reorganisation.

  5. 3 options that could be considered, working with the existing system:

    1) 'Bulk developers' could sell a number of serviced plots on their developments to 'individual-house builders' under Section 106 agreements.

    2) Landowners who receive planning permission for a change of use to housing could be required to divide the land into small lots for sale (nothing to stop a bulk builder buying them all, but gives smaller developers a chance), which each buyer paying a set percentage of the infrastructure costs.

    3) Those interested in small-scale development could be given a 'pre-emption right' to purchase land at market rates from major land owners or bulk-developers within the first few months after sale or the granting of planning permission. This could be extended beyond individual-house builders to housing associations (who may, perhaps, be required to meet certain conditions and be on a local authority list in order to aquire the right to pre-emption).

  6. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the development scene so unusual in the UK, but a large part of it has been a presumption against development in the countryside, which doesn't seem to have bothered other western nations nearly so much. The West Coast of Ireland is a prime example of how bad unplanned rural development can get, but visit the periphery of any English market town and you can see how bad it gets when you cram development into tighter and tighter spaces, and build it to a lowest common denominator standard.

  7. I agree that part of the problem is a presumption against development in the countryside. However I think that the 'cult of the owner-occupier' in the UK is another important factor.

    In England about 70% of the population are owner-occupiers. For comparison in France its around 56%, and 46% in Germany.

    There are no doubt many reasons behind this, but it would seem that the UK system has evolved a 'pile them high and sell them cheap' planning-building system to induce and statisfy this demand, with added pressure from the escalating house and land proces caused by limited land supply due to planning restrictions. In other words there are a number of interlocking vicious circles driving prices up, quality down, and favouring the bulk-builder.

    In France and Germany there is the greater emphasis on quality and individual design that goes with a more limited and more stable market - albeit one that fewer are able to participate in.

  8. Geoff StowMay 09, 2011

    I sat on the panel with Grant Shapps, Kevin McCloud & Ted Stevens at the Grand Designs Live Show last week where Grant Shapps outlined his vision for self build in the future.
    He was very interested in promoting Community Self Build although he didn't specify what he meant by that. He was also keen to push the idea that Government and local authorities should release land for self build and promised that the first lots would be released later this year.
    Everything he said was very positive but as always we need to see what happens in reality. Hopefully the panels set up to look at different areas of self-build can now keep the momentum and pressure up otherwise it will get lost in the system.

  9. Isn't the definition relatively easy - you're a self-builder if the developer of the house - self-builder, renovator, restorer or whatever - is its first occupant. In my view, small-scale speculative development, and it can often be in single units, is completely different from self-build and should not be confused.

    If it really wants to measure self-build, Government needs to compare changes in land ownership with the initial payment (or substantial changes in the level) of Council Tax. If there's no change in ownership or occupation, then it's a self-build. But this requires two competely different datasets to be merged, and Government isn't very good at doing this, so therefore won't like the definition.