Why building our own homes could solve the UK’s housing crisis

Self-commissioned housing is more than a distracting hobby for the well-to-do middle classes. 

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For potential house buyers, the chief focus in Rishi Sunak’s Budget last week may have been the extension of the Stamp Duty holiday or the 95 per cent Mortgage Guarantee Scheme – but something more interesting is happening behind the scenes that could make a difference to our entrenched housing model.   

According to research by the Home Builders’ Federation, a trade body, only 33 per cent of home buyers would consider buying a house from one of the volume housebuilders. Yet people who want to build their own homes face a system heavily stacked against them: no ready access to land or finance, and the hostility of some planning authorities, who prefer dealing with a small number of large, national housebuilders. When it comes to large-scale development, just 2 per cent of the public trust developers and only 7 per cent of the public trust local councils.     

But buried deep in the December 2020 spending review was an additional £100m to support the release of public sector land, which will include a “significant portion” for serviced plots for self and custom-builders. For Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, it is a chance to showcase some high-quality exemplars where homebuyers get to influence the design of their own home.

This may seem insignificant given the size of the nation’s housing problem. But it would be quite wrong to see self-commissioned housing as merely a distracting hobby for the well-to-do middle classes. If it is done at scale, providing serviced plots of public sector land – where the difficult parts such as electricity, gas, broadband, fresh water and sewage are already taken care of – could cut the cost to £20,000 per plot. And the serviced plot approach is tenure-blind. It has been used successfully in Germany and the Netherlands for affordable rent schemes, co-housing, community land trusts and mutual housing co-operatives, as well as for private purchase, while there are also more than 400 community land trusts in operation in England and Wales.

In the UK, the cliché of self-builders is older cash-rich retirees looking to create their forever home, but increasingly it’s the younger generation struggling to afford a home at all who are looking in this direction. They are driven both by the chance to have more say in the home they really want and by the affordability benefits. Research by Nationwide Building Society indicates that 61 per cent of people would like to build or commission a house to their own design at some point in their lives, while among those actively looking at getting on the property ladder the figure is 83 per cent, with the same statistic repeated for 18 to 24-year-olds. For the cohort of 18 to 34-year-old homeowners the figure is 80 per cent.     

Since the passage of the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 (full disclosure: the law started as my Private Member’s Bill), I’ve spent considerable time looking at housing schemes across Europe, where this approach is considered normal, across a wide range of tenures.     

Homeless single mothers in Berlin got together with the co-operation of the local authority and commissioned a block of flats that they now rent at an affordable rate. In France, rural mayors routinely provide serviced plots of land to encourage families to stay locally. In the Netherlands, the town of Delft has used self-build to transform its approach to urban planning, with the explicit aim of becoming a more attractive destination for the industries of the future and the people who will work in them.   

Meanwhile Amsterdam offers access to serviced plots of land to people on its statutory housing needs register, with readily available finance packages. People can buy the land for £30,000 and build a decent house for just over £100,000 – and if they can’t afford to buy the land, they can rent it at a low rate and elect to buy later. 

Evidence from across the world shows that self-commissioning of homes is the norm for homes of all types and tenures. It is used to deliver high-rise developments, terraces, squares and floating homes, as well as detached houses. Self-builders renovate and convert existing buildings. They deliver affordable housing, including both affordable home ownership and affordable rent. Self-build is used by community groups and by mutual housing co-operatives. Homes are built within frameworks that can balance consumer choices with wider community needs. These are homes that can look the same on the outside but be very different on the inside, in terms of design and use of space. Self-build homes range from ultra-modern methods of construction built in high-tech off-site factories through to bespoke artisan homes constructed by local craftsmen.     

This is not the stuff of Grand Designs – there are now custom-build packagers who help people deliver projects on budget and on time. And there is a small but quite mature self and custom-build mortgage market, with a default rate lower than for conventional mortgages.  

But the potential scope is grand indeed. Self and custom-build has touched the skills agenda, social cohesion, help for disabled people, veterans, and even the successful management of re-offending. Most of all, it makes more people want more new homes to be built.     

As the architect Rod Hackney observed: “It is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy which can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves.”   

Richard Bacon is MP for South Norfolk and Right to Build Task Force Ambassador. 

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