England is blessed with some of the most beautiful villages, towns and cities in the world. Our forebears possessed an instinctive talent for making great places, yet somehow this is an art we have almost entirely forgotten.
A gap has opened up between the places we want to see and those we actually create. Instead of beauty and a natural order, we see a sterile sameness almost everywhere we look. Rather than an architecture displaying a rich array of local vernaculars we can celebrate and honour, crafted using traditional materials and skills with a distinct sense of place – and even become a way of affirming identity and belonging – we see instead a crushing of imagination, with houses designed by accountants. We are failing to create the listed buildings of tomorrow.
The consequences are stark. Quite simply, new housing is feared. In no other time in our history would housing be thought of as pollution. Our country has a growing population, an aging housing stock and a younger generation who have been priced out of home ownership – and for whom even renting a home costs far too high a proportion of their income. We need to build more new homes.
There is of course a proper concern that we should protect our beautiful countryside – but opposition to new housing is chiefly a cri de coeur against the second-rate, the environmentally damaging and the bland. Instead of new housing that most people want, we have a soulless monoculture. One witness in my Review commented that “the planning system rewards mediocrity” – and people are entirely right to object to mediocrity. Yet the consequences are that for decades we have not built enough houses – and this is tearing deep fissures into the fabric of our society.
There is a solution. It involves creating the conditions in which customers are treated as if they matter the most, rather than – for the most part – scarcely mattering at all. And this is what happens when people themselves commission the houses they would like to see.
Homes England – whose remit includes making markets – has a key role to play in kickstarting this market – and my core recommendation is that a Custom & Self-Build Delivery Unit should be established with a mandate to deliver the required changes, staffed by skilled professionals with deep experience of delivering custom and self-build projects for customers across all tenures.
When we have fully opened up the housing market and the planning process to the power of consumer choice, we will see more great places being developed which are warmly welcomed by their communities, with beautiful and more spacious houses, at keener prices – and that are better designed, better built, greener and which cost less to run, which enrich the lives of the people who live there – while driving innovation and inward investment. And when afterwards we have done this, we will look back and wonder why it took us so long.
I wish to record my enormous gratitude to Chamberlain Walker Economics – a specialist economics consultancy with a deep knowledge of housing, infrastructure and local growth – for the detailed economic analysis which begins on page 68 (See the full report). A full list of acknowledgments is on page 106 (See the full report).
Bristol has some excellent eco-housing projects which reduced their carbon emissions significantly. One of the best is the city’s first purpose-build co-housing development and the first project to pilot self-build for rented accommodation, The Courtyard in the Montpellier neighbourhood. The first project led by Bright Green Futures, it comprises four rental flats which the tenants designed themselves and some tenants physically helped to build.
The homes are the first in Bristol to be awarded an A-rating for both energy efficiency and environmental impact on their energy certificate. The project won the second prize of the South West Energy Efficiency and Retrofit Award 2016 for “Best Large Project” and illustrates how much can be achieved from the grassroots with a few dedicated individuals.
The scheme delivered zero carbon without public subsidy whilst delivering good returns to investors.
What is Self-build and Custom housebuilding?
Many people are unaware that each year in the United Kingdom several thousand houses are commissioned to order by the customer who will live in the house once it is completed. In the UK around 13,000 houses are built this way annually. This makes self and custom housebuilding in the UK collectively equivalent in size to one of the larger national housebuilders – if it were ranked with them it would probably come fourth or fifth. Self-commissioned housing is much more common overseas, often accounting for a third of total housing supply and, in some cases, such as in Germany, it is the dominant method of delivering new housing (55%).
But what does “self and custom housebuilding” actually mean? Self-build and custom housebuilding are terms commonly used to describe a home that is built to the design and specifications of the person who will live there – the occupant. Self-build and custom housebuilding are defined within the Self-Build & Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 (as amended by the Housing & Planning Act 2016).
Many prefer the term “self-commissioned housing” which is clearer. In practice the self-commissioned housing market is a spectrum. At one extreme, people may find a plot and undertake every element of the build themselves – a home that is literally self-built. At the other extreme, people may select a model home from a catalogue and have it erected for them on their chosen serviced plot, which they have purchased from a landowner or builder. What both approaches have in common is that it is the customer who makes the key design and lay-out decisions, rather than a developer building a home speculatively in the hope that, at some point, someone might like it enough to buy it. “Self-build” is increasingly associated with a home built on a single plot. By contrast, “custom build” involves homes built by professionals on behalf of new homeowners on permissioned serviced plots in line with a framework of rules that define the nature and delivery of the site.
Self-build and custom housebuilding is often associated with detached homes but has proven that it can deliver semi-detached, terraced rows of townhouses, conversions of existing buildings and even high rise apartment blocks (see page 55 in the full report). Clearly such developments result in some limits to the choices available to occupants. For example, an apartment block may fully define the external look of the building and only offer interior layout options and fitting out of a shell to the occupier’s design specification.
Custom build suppliers encourage customer choice and it is integral to the sales process and maximised where possible. This is not just about kitchen or bathroom tiles or paint colours but offers choices over room layouts, design specifications and the ability to customise the home to suit an occupier’s needs.
Self-commissioned housing can also deliver affordable housing under a range of tenures, from intermediate affordable housing such as discount market sale and First Homes to shared ownership and even rental properties.
This may involve occupiers moving into a customisable property which they have finished to their design requirements with “sweat equity” that is offset against the cost of a deposit. In other cases, the occupants may even build the homes themselves.
Recommendation 1: Greater role for Homes England
The government should create a new Custom and Self-Build Housing Delivery Unit within Homes England to enable the creation of serviced building plots on small and large sites and support the delivery of custom and self-build housing at scale across the country.
Recommendation 2: Raise Awareness of the Right to Build
The government, working through Homes England in partnership with the custom and self-build industry, should create a custom and self-build housing Show Park and should strengthen existing legislation to mandate the wider publicity of Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Registers and the sharing of key data between willing landowners and people on registers.
Recommendation 3: Support Community-Led Housing, Diversity of Supply and Levelling Up
The government should reignite the successful Community Housing Fund; create accessible opportunities for communities to help themselves by introducing a Self-Help Housing Programme; and introduce a Plot to Rent Scheme.
Recommendation 4: Promote Greener homes and more use of advanced manufacturing
The government should recognise and support the pathfinding role of the custom and self-build housing sector in advanced manufacturing and in greener homes to accelerate the delivery of its wider Modern Methods of Construction and Net Zero Housing ambitions.
Recommendation 5: Support Custom and Self-build housebuilding through the Planning Reforms
The government should ensure that the planning reforms in its White Paper Planning for the future maximise the opportunities for access to permissioned land for CSB across all tenures, including making focussed changes to the Right to Build legislation to ensure that it achieves its objectives.
Recommendation 6: Iron out any tax creases
The government should investigate the perceived disadvantages in the tax system between the CSB delivery model and other forms of housing, identifying specific actions where necessary to neutralise them.
Recommendation 1: Greater role for Homes England
The Government should create a new Custom and Self-Build Housing Delivery Unit within Homes England to enable the creation of serviced building plots on small and large sites and support the delivery of custom and self-build housing (CSB) at scale across the country. To deliver this, Homes England would:
a) Establish a CSB Housing Delivery Unit which would procure and dispose of serviced building plots on public and private land, working with SME builders and taking account of market demand, underpinned by a clear procurement framework and delivery strategy agreed with Ministers, with an ambition to include CSB on all large sites as part of the housing mix;
b) Direct investment into CSB enablers, Development Corporations and Local Authorities and ensure strong CSB representation on the new Dynamic Partnership System for public land procurement;
c) Launch the new Help to Build Equity Loan by September 2021;
d) Work with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and One Public Estate to extend and simplify access to the Brownfield land release fund for the creation of serviced building plots;
e) Retain access to the Home Building Fund for CSB projects and ensure the Community Housing Fund remains effective and targets the right projects; and
f) Work with the proposed ‘Centre of Excellence’ for Modern Methods of Construction to promote effective CSB delivery.
Recommendation 2: Raise Awareness of the Right to Build
The government, working through Homes England in partnership with the custom and self- build industry, should create a custom and self-build housing Show Park and should strengthen existing legislation to mandate the wider publicity of Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Registers and the sharing of key data between willing landowners and people on registers. To deliver this, the government would:
a) With the support of Homes England and in partnership with the CSB industry, establish a Destination Show Park and Hub with Show Homes (preferably on public land or with a willing landowner) which can showcase manufacturing and assembly capabilities and has meeting space facilities, designed to sell the Show Homes as part of a new neighbourhood over time and with the ambition to develop further Destination Show Parks as the CSB sector grows;
b) As part of Recommendation 5(g), mandate that ‘relevant authorities’ widely promote their statutory Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Registers and that they share demand data and information on suitable development permissions between willing people on the register and land-owners and project promoters;
c) Launch a consumer marketing campaign and associated website providing public information on:
- Custom and Self Build Opportunities with links to all partners bringing forward serviced plots for custom and self build on public sector land, including opportunities for people to join community-led housing schemes and affordable CSB schemes via Community-led Housing Hubs
- Help to Build Loan Fund with links to partners offering the Help to Build Equity Loan and information on the scheme
- Right to Build Registers to explain how Self- build and Custom Housebuilding registers work for individuals and associations of individuals, with links to all local authority Registers and published performance data for each local authority
- Show Homes with information on where the public can visit CSB show homes and how to book a visit
Recommendation 3: Support Community-Led Housing, Diversity of Supply and Levelling Up
The government should reignite the successful Community Housing Fund; create accessible opportunities for communities to help themselves by introducing a Self-Help Housing Programme; and introduce a Plot to Rent Scheme. To deliver this, the government would:
a) Offer targeted funding to support the growth of Community-led Housing Hubs and consolidate support and responsibility for Community-led Housing into the proposed new Homes England Custom and Self-Build Housing Delivery Unit, with a boosted funding model;
b) Make Community-led housing an integrated part of the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) with predictable long-term finance and an ambition to allocate 10% of annual AHP funding to empower low income and often marginalised people to become part of the solution to their own problems, which could include:
- Funding local specialist registered providers with a focus on CSB to buy suitable sites and act as project enablers; and reinforcing the strength and success already demonstrated by the Community-led housing Hubs;
- Creating a Small Sites Programme as a new umbrella for the plethora of small and often overlooked sites owned by housing associations, encouraging the use of Local Development Orders extending over clusters of small sites to eliminate planning risk, while ensuring that a wide range of participants have access to the sites, including community groups, co-operatives, co-housing groups and individuals.
- Enabling people to build their own homes using ‘sweat equity’, under supervision, while creating and fostering local opportunities for employment, training and enterprise;
- Offering repayable loan finance to suitable charitable organisations – such as Housing People, Building Communities; Leeds Community Housing; Wigan Armed Forces HQ; and many similar groups across England; and
c) Introduce a Plot to Rent Scheme with a Rent-Now-Buy-Later option, modelled on international experience.
Recommendation 4: Promote Greener homes and more use of advanced manufacturing
The government should recognise and support the path finding role of the custom and self-build housing sector in advanced manufacturing and in greener homes to accelerate the delivery of its wider Modern Methods of Construction and Net Zero Housing ambitions. To deliver this, the government would:
a) Ensure that CSB is embedded into the work of the new Modern Methods of Construction Task Force and its actions and that this work in turn supports the growth of the missing market for customisable housing;
b) Ensure that the momentum towards achieving Net Zero house building is sustained by working with the custom and self-build sector to address the current constraints with regard to increasing the safe use of timber in low rise housing, learning from significant progress already made in Scotland;
c) Recognising strong investor interest in Environmental and Social Governance (ESG), encourage innovation and realignment towards use of greener building materials, while raising awareness among lenders, valuers, and insurers of the environmental benefits of CSB compared with existing housing stock;
d) Encourage greener mortgage product design and changes to mortgage affordability calculations to reflect the expected energy costs of a new home rather than the average energy costs for an existing home, and in doing so support greater initial investment in greener homes; and
e) Sponsor and support research and engagement with organisations such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre and others, to apply more effectively the engineering insights and learnings already available from the aerospace and automotive sectors to the way in which houses are constructed.
Recommendation 5: Support Custom and Self-build housebuilding through the Planning Reforms
The government should ensure that the planning reforms in its White Paper Planning for the future maximise the opportunities for access to permissioned land for CSB across all tenures, including making focussed changes to the Right to Build legislation to ensure that it achieves its objectives. To deliver this, the government would ensure that the forthcoming planning reforms:
a) Extend the opportunities for the specific designation of land for CSB housing in the proposed area-based planning system, using Design Codes for CSB housing across all appropriate designations;
b) Set a target for local planning authorities to provide for serviced plots unless market demand (not Register demand) can be shown to be regularly met and there are deliverable allocations in new style local plans to meet this demand;
c) Give substantial weight to CSB as a material consideration in the revised National Planning Policy Framework;
d) Facilitate local authorities to take a more interventionist approach to bring forward land for CSB and SME home builders by running pilot programmes to support councils in land assembly to create serviced building plots for new housing as part of the new-style local plan land allocations process;
e) Ensure assembled sites come forward quickly and are deliverable and plan-led, by enabling new-style local plans to be partially amended through the designation of a Land Assembly Partnership Zone or Area; embed the learning from the pilot programmes and roll the process out nationally by: (a) setting out in guidance/policy or a suitable statutory instrument the assembly process which should be followed, similar to guidance on the compulsory purchase process; and (b) provide ongoing favourable loan funding to service and assemble the sites, which is repaid when plots are sold;
f) Allow minor changes to new style local plans following a streamlined process, if a development on the edge of a settlement/urban area provides for small scale CSB plots, and for councils to set locally-specific policies for this;
g) Make minor changes to the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015, where possible through secondary legislation, to clarify the definition of custom and self-build housebuilding; what counts towards giving suitable development permissions and how the ‘duty to provide’ is measured; remove the use of fees and eligibility criteria; introduce a clear sanction if the demand on the registers is not met; and link under-delivery to the Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development (or its replacement under the planning reforms); ensure there is an obligatory annual monitoring requirement placed on authorities; and, clarify how planning obligations can be used to secure CSB development in planning terms, including how plots should be marketed before they are able to be built out for market housing;
h) Introduce a targeted exception and windfall site policy which enables custom and self-build housing on unplanned housing sites in rural areas and on sites adjacent to existing settlements; and
i) Introduce a commitment that government will publish annual monitoring data of demand on Self-build and Custom Housebuilding registers and delivery against meeting this demand, for each relevant authority.
Recommendation 6: Iron out any tax creases
The government should investigate the perceived disadvantages in the tax system between the CSB delivery model and other forms of housing, identifying specific actions where necessary to neutralise them. To deliver this, the government would:
a) Engage the Treasury and HM Revenue & Customs to work with the CSB sector to identify any potential imbalances in the tax system which may disincentivise serviced plots for custom and self-build housing;
b) Consider the actions needed to address any issues identified, with due regard to any fiscal impact and wider implications of any changes;
c) Give guidance to Councils to clarify how they can treat the creation and sale of building plots for VAT purposes;
d) Recognise that there are unintended challenges in applying the current Community Infrastructure Levy ‘self-build’ exemption to CSB apartments, terraces and semi-detached homes and work with the CSB sector to identify ways in which such forms of CSB can benefit from the exemption, as part of the government’s review of developer contributions.
Chapter 1: Ensuring the right conditions
We face a real threat of Two Nations. The stakes could not be higher. The current housing situation threatens labour mobility and the prosperity of the wider economy. It is already a strategic problem affecting major employers who want to hire the best staff. It is now causing couples to postpone having children because of worries about how they will ever afford suitable accommodation for a family. It is eroding social capital and could easily foment political unrest and extremism.
We are in danger of becoming Two Nations – one nation in which a whole generation struggles to find somewhere to afford to live at all, while the other adds to its buy-to-let portfolio. Children born in the 1980s are the first since the War to be worse off than their predecessors. As Douglas Murray writes: “It is not clear why a generation which can’t accumulate capital should have any great love of capitalism. And it isn’t hard to work out why a generation who believe they may never own a home could be attracted to an ideological world view which promises to sort out every inequity not just in their own lives but every inequity on earth”[footnote 1]. The economics commentator Martin Wolf has broodingly observed that “Once people are deprived of hope for a better life for themselves and their children, societies based on consent are likely to founder”[footnote 2]. And as Nicholas Boys Smith has recently asked: “Is it surprising that the politics of so many of the educated urban young are becoming so flippantly revolutionary? What do they have to lose?”[footnote 3]
However, almost like a Soviet state, the status quo in housing persists because over many years the population has come to believe that there is no alternative; they think that – for all the obvious flaws – people must simply learn to live with things as they are. Open our eyes and look further afield and we will see that this does not need to be the case. The United Kingdom – and England in particular – operates its housing model differently from any other country in the world. We are on the wrong side of our own Iron Curtain.
Until the mass social housebuilding projects of the 20th century, England historically left the delivery of new homes to individual enterprise and private philanthropists, while local authorities installed essential infrastructure such as roads, water and sewerage. In theory, we should have for the new homes market plenty of competition and innovation, delivering wide choice to consumers with high quality and good value, as happens in most other areas of the economy.
The Five Year Plan
It might therefore seem ironic that current new housing often exhibits many of the characteristics of the old Soviet-style plan-led economies – famously characterised by scarcity, low quality, homogeneity and a lack of innovation – in motoring terms, the housing equivalents of the Trabant, the Lada and the Skoda. Until, that is, one acknowledges that at the heart of our broken housing market lies a “Five Year” plan-led system which since 1947 has nationalised the control of development land.
The same intellectual failings that ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain have left us with a system that is deeply inefficient at allocating land for housing in the places people want to live, or matching supply with demand. And the story of what happened to Skoda once it was liberated shows what is possible. Some 75 years after the decision to nationalise development rights we can see the result: for the very item on which customers spend the largest proportion of their incomes – their homes – they hold the least consumer power.
As a former motoring correspondent of GQ magazine – and an instinctive believer in the huge benefits of free enterprise and free markets, with an accompanying mindfulness of what John Kay has called “their genius, their limits, their follies” – you will be fully aware that the supply of nearly everything from Ford Fiestas to Ferraris rises to meet the demand – and that, in a functioning system, it is demand which drives volume, whether for food or shoes or anything else. We all need food – indeed, one dies without it – yet no one has said we need a National Food Service, or a National Shoe Service for that matter.
Rationing the means of production within an otherwise free market has led to the virtual monopolisation of those means, and the result is a system in which big housebuilders chiefly compete not in the market for new homes but in the market for land. I discuss this important phenomenon in greater detail in Chapter 6. Land rationing has inflated prices, suppressed the size of new homes and gardens, blunted innovation and constrained output. Moreover, this has become hard-wired into the system. Apparently, we are just supposed to accept that land comes forward almost exclusively as large strategic sites. And we are also just supposed to accept, apparently, that individuals, communities and small builders wishing to build homes – as they have done for centuries – simply cannot access the land market. To be clear, I am not arguing for an Austrian or Chicago School free-for-all. There would be very little support for that. Indeed, we need muscular State action to correct the mistakes of the past, but in a different way.
It is popular to lay the blame at the door of the volume housebuilders, with their landbanks, super-normal profits and bland output, but this uniquely British model has evolved as a natural response to a system that controls the means of production. A decision made at the height of post-war idealism, but now discredited in almost every other part of the economy, still prevails at the heart of one of the most fundamental and important industries in England, a system which – in a very un-English way – bestows permissions in lieu of rights.
Smaller building firms
As recently as the 1980s, small and medium sized housebuilders built two thirds of all houses. These smaller players – who successfully met local demand and who, crucially, depended on their local reputation for future sales – now deliver barely 12% of new housing stock. Smaller builders were extremely hard hit by the financial crash and have largely been squeezed out by very big companies who can afford the time and cost involved in negotiating a path through the complex thickets of the planning system. The government has noted the plight of smaller building firms and has taken steps to bolster their position and offer new sources of funding, such as the Home Building Fund. Nonetheless, the position for smaller builders remains a difficult one – and some even told this Review that if they were starting out in business now, they would not start.
But it is no use blaming the big housebuilders. Mere exhortations that these private businesses must “do their duty” by building more houses, more quickly, are intellectually woolly and will fall on deaf ears. As major companies they are already doing their duty – their fiduciary duty to their shareholders – and the fact that these companies have vastly reduced in number while growing hugely in size – and that the SME Builder sector has nearly been destroyed – is a direct consequence of a regulatory environment which is both exceptionally complex and fraught with risk, so that the gaining of planning consents requires both very deep pockets and the ability to bear significant risks over very long periods of time. The concentration of most housebuilding into fewer and fewer hands is simply an evolutionary response by housebuilders to the regulatory environment in which they are required to operate. And to change the course of evolution, one must change the conditions.
The structural weaknesses in our system are not for lack of ink on paper – or of talk. In a seemingly endless cycle of consultations about consultations, we ask almost everyone for their views on housing: councillors, planners, landowners, housebuilders, local residents who already have a home, electricity suppliers, water undertakers, builders’ merchants, campaigners for rural England, and many more.
Oddly, the one group we don’t seem to listen to are the people who need somewhere to live. In other walks of life we call these people customers – and listening to customers works quite well in most areas of life we care about. An important point is that “Customer” should mean anyone who needs somewhere to live. This includes ordinary people on normal incomes who want to own their own home – and who are currently watching a natural aspiration turn into a distant and impossible dream – as well as those who currently can’t even dream of home ownership at all because they are simply desperate for a decent home of any kind, including the poor, the marginalised, the homeless and ex-offenders. All are customers of the housing system in the simple sense that they all need somewhere to live – and if they all had some customer power, we could change things much more quickly.
We need to put customers and their choices back at the heart of the process, where they belong: “In some respects we have more choice than you can shake a stick at. We can watch anything anywhere any time. We can zoom off to Air BNBs on cheapo flights. Our food is better, our cars are faster and safer, our life expectancy is certainly a lot longer. And yet there is one huge difference between our generation and the millennials out there. One cardinal way in which opportunity has declined. And that is in the scope and power of the younger generation, with their own resources, to buy somewhere to live that they can call their own. It is a disgraceful fact that we now have lower rates of owner occupation – for under 40s – than the French or the Germans. That reflects the failure of governments for the last 30 years to build enough housing”.
True words. Indeed, your words, in a speech you gave on 2 October 2018. It is now very clear that new approaches are needed. In a quest for mere numbers – and those often no more than figures in a theoretical plan, not real houses – we have forgotten about people, about their hopes and dreams, their astonishing creativity and their need to belong. If we are to build more houses in England – and we very much need to – then we have to do things differently. The government observed in its 2017 white paper that the housing shortage isn’t a looming crisis, a distant threat that will become a problem if we fail to act; we are already living in it. That white paper also noted that this is “a problem that won’t solve itself.” And while there has been progress in housebuilding recently, the greatest advances have been in our thinking.
The landmark report Living with Beauty – published last year by the Building Beautiful, Building Better Commission – set a very helpful new tone. The Commission cited Dame Fiona Reynolds: “Today to talk of beauty in policy circles risks embarrassment: it is felt to be too vague a word, lacking precision and focus….yet in losing the word ‘beauty’ we have lost something special from our ability to shape our present and our future”. People now increasingly understand that – far from being embarrassing – beauty is an essential lens through which to see our housing problems if we wish to solve them. Put shortly, if we want “development” to be a good word, we must have good development.
The old wisdom of how to do things well is slowly being recovered. Ancient civilisations across the world with no connection to one another solved the problems of producing liveable human settlements in very similar ways, as the urban thinkers David Rudlin and Shruti Hemani have pointed out. Architectural designers such as Charlie Luxton and social entrepreneurs such as Nicholas Boys Smith – a co-author of Living with Beauty – have shown us that asking people what they actually want and involving them in decisions delivers very different outcomes, with much better public space and much better places – real places with middles. The Duchy of Cornwall has shown that creating homes for a wide range of people – with mixed incomes and mixed tenures in walkable places – leads to new jobs and transforms how human beings live. Nicholas Boys Smith rightly concludes that we should spend less time asking how to build more houses and more time thinking about how to make houses more popular.
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. It is used in the renovation and conversion of existing buildings. It is used to deliver affordable housing including both affordable home ownership and affordable rent. It is used by community groups and mutual housing co-operatives. These homes are built within frameworks that are able to 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 with regards to 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 which are constructed in local materials by local craftsmen.
There will be a greater appetite for new homes if more people wish to live in them. Over half of SME builders in England have built a self-commissioned home in the last year. These homes are better built, greener, longer lasting, and more beautiful than the products of the largest house-builders. The benefits of home ownership have been long recognised and actively encouraged. It is indisputably true that these benefits are maximised when homeowners have homes that are best suited to their own needs. And people’s needs are defined not just by the number of bedrooms but by many other things too: their physical and mental needs, their values, lifestyles and tastes, by the need to be able to work at home – so clearly amplified by the recent pandemic – and by care for their family, their community and their concern for the planet. Yet we have failed to follow the path to its natural conclusion at the point at which we have the greatest opportunity to do so – that is, when the home is built. Our diverse population is being failed by a speculative house-building model focused on delivering the smallest number of different home types to the largest groups.
More people[footnote 4] want to build their own homes than to buy new ones[footnote 5] but they face a system which is heavily stacked against them – not least the availability of land and finance and also the hostility of some planning authorities who prefer dealing with a small number of large national housebuilders. Just 2% of the public trust developers and only 7% of the public trust local authorities[footnote 6] when it comes to large-scale development but we seem to place more trust in a planner’s tick box sheet that in homeowners’ own judgements. There is a missing market.
A significant part of the solution is to deliver a shift in power from planners and providers to home occupiers – whatever their tenure. Change is delivered through a shift towards the self-commissioning of homes – what we call Custom and Self-Build – or CSB. The simplest, quickest and cheapest way to do this – although of course it is not the only way[footnote 7] – is through muscular action by the State on public land to provide serviced plots of land everywhere so that people can have real choice. And the good news is that change has successfully happened elsewhere. This does not need to be any more complicated than ordering a new car, where customers expect and get a high level of personal specification. The Netherlands is now delivering 15,000 homes per year in this way. If we were achieving at the same rate as The Netherlands, the UK would – given our larger size – be delivering 60,000 houses per year in addition to existing new housing stock.
As you indicate in your letter to me, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of the place we call home. Indeed, the combined effects of the pandemic and over 20 years of using the internet to work remotely have thrown up enormous questions about the nature of Place and Work and Real Estate. As recently as the 1980s, a shiny new retail shopping centre or a new commercial office block looked like good investments. Not now. And when the John Lewis Partnership announces – as it recently did – that it plans to build 10,000 homes, one knows that the tectonic plates are starting to shift around. Yet this turbulence also gives us huge opportunities to reimagine and to repurpose the places around us. Churchill famously said “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us”. We now have an unparalleled opportunity to reimagine our built environment in ways which will help us shape our futures together.
Governments alone cannot solve these problems. Indeed, it would be a form of lunacy to imagine that this can be done from the top down – without widespread and genuine participation by ordinary people. But as Kelvin Campbell proposes, by changing our thinking, practices and language we can create space where governments and people can work together to achieve a transformation that neither could achieve alone.
Interestingly, at the same time, fund managers are now thinking harder than ever about how to invest in residential dwellings of all types and tenures at a scale which makes sense for them – so we may see a world emerging where the transformation is guided by the people and their government working together, with much of the money to pay for the changes coming from pension funds looking for safe very long-term investments.
In accordance with my terms of reference, the format of this report is as follows: first the report looks at the story of custom and self-build so far and the nature of government support in recent years. Then the report examines the desire within our population to commission their own homes. After this, the report looks at how information and exemplars may be used to help raise awareness. Then we see what might be done using land the public already owns. We also examine what can be learned from overseas. And finally, the report charts a path to delivering real change that works.
The central problem we face is that too few people wish to buy the new homes that are being built. Our housing delivery system has become increasingly hard-wired in favour of one particular model of limited appeal. Ready access to permissioned and serviced land for those offering real customer choice is at the heart of the solution.
Delivering genuine consumer choice is economically viable and delivers better outcomes – just look at what happens elsewhere in the developed world and indeed in the car market. But offering real choice won’t just happen if it remains very difficult to do. Indeed, the government acknowledges that our housing crisis is “a problem that won’t solve itself.”
The two biggest risks facing those who wish to build a house are the very significant infrastructure risk – someone has to put in the roads, water and other service such as electricity and broadband – and the planning risk – which is unendurable for many, particularly for smaller builders and individuals. If we genuinely want to see a solution to England’s housing problems, then we must remove the risks around infrastructure – a proper public function – and create certainty around planning so that the system is predictable – as should happen anyway in a rule-based system. We need permissioned and serviced plots of land to be readily available everywhere and then to allow consumers to make real choices. Moreover, there is clear evidence that consumers with free choices commission much greener houses with lower running costs. Increasing consumer choice will therefore assist the government in meeting its climate change commitments, which will not be met without significant changes to how we build houses.
Custom & Self-Build Delivery Unit
Homes England – whose remit includes making markets – has a key role to play in kickstarting this market – and my core recommendation is that a Custom & Self-Build Delivery Unit should be established with a mandate to deliver the required changes, staffed by a small team of skilled professionals who have wide experience of delivering custom and self-build projects for customers, and reporting directly to Homes England’s chief executive and chief investment officer.
I wish to record my enormous gratitude to Chamberlain Walker Economics – a specialist economics consultancy with a deep knowledge of housing, infrastructure and local growth – for the detailed economic analysis which begins on page 68 (see the full report). A full list of acknowledgments is on page 106 (see the full report). I believe that answers are now within our grasp to the fundamental questions of how to create great new places that are welcomed their communities rather than feared. And at the heart of any successful new approach one thing stands out. Talk to the end users – the customers.
Custom & Self Build the Story So Far
Since 2011, the government has introduced several progressive measures to boost the self-build and custom housebuilding sector (CSB), focussing on overcoming key barriers relating to land, finance and bridging the knowledge gap on effective delivery. These included legislation, planning policy and guidance to bring forward more land; financial support for self-builders, councils, landowners, builders and building groups; a vanguard programme of supportive councils and pilot projects on public land; support through an industry-led Task Force; and, promoting development quality.
In January 2011, as part of its plans to increase housebuilding, the government asked the self-build industry to work with the Department of Communities and Local Government to consider what was needed to help more ordinary people in England to build their own homes. In July 2011, the Self-Build Government-Industry Working Group published, ‘An Action Plan to Promote the Growth of Self-Build Housing’, which set out a vision statement for the CSB sector with 29 specific actions to create a ‘self-build revolution’. These actions informed the Government’s November 2011 Housing Strategy, ‘Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England’, which set out plans to make self-commissioned homebuilding a mainstream housing option and help build affordable, greener and innovatively designed homes. The Housing Strategy set an aspiration to unlock the growth potential of the custom homes market and double its size, to create up to 100,000 additional custom-build homes over the next decade and enable the industry to support up to 50,000 jobs. In line with the Housing Strategy, the government published its first National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in March 2012 asking all local planning authorities to assess the local needs of those that want to build their own home and plan to meet these needs through local plans and planning decisions. This action was followed by legislative changes to exempt self-builders from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which came into effect in February 2014.
The government then announced that it would consult on a new Right to Build scheme in the March 2014 Budget to give prospective custom housebuilders a right to secure a serviced plot of land from their local council. This was followed by a £30m Custom Build Homes Fund in July 2014 to provide short-term loan finance for multi-home custom-build projects. In September 2014 the government announced eleven ‘Vanguard’ local authorities to pioneer the Right to Build.
In March 2015 the Minister of State for Housing and Planning wrote to all local authorities underlining the government’s commitment to support self-commissioned housing to diversify housing supply and help deliver the homes people want. This made clear that failure to take local demand for CSB into account could lead to Local Plans being found unsound by the Planning Inspectorate. In June 2015 it opened a £150m Custom Build Serviced Plots Fund Loan which superseded the Custom Build Homes Fund and was designed to provide loans to create 10,000 serviced building plots for self-builders.
This was followed by landmark primary legislation in March 2015 under the ‘Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act’ which placed a two-fold duty on relevant authorities (broadly local councils and national parks) to maintain a register of people who are seeking to acquire a serviced plot in their area to build their own home and to have regard to the demand for custom build housing as evidenced by the registers when exercising certain functions including those relating to planning and housing.
In May 2016 this important legislation was strengthened by the ‘Housing and Planning Act 2016’ which established a legal duty on local authorities to give sufficient development permissions to meet the demand on their Register on a rolling basis, supported by two sets of regulations. In October 2016 Homes England launched a £3bn Home Building Fund to support the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) developer market and landowners who deliver serviced plots for custom and self-builders with loan funding for development and infrastructure costs.
In January 2017, the government announced that 14 new garden villages would have access to a £6m fund over two financial years to support the delivery, some of which included self-build and custom housebuilding ambitions. In February 2017, the government published its Housing White Paper, ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’, which acknowledged that there was significant demand for self-build and custom housebuilding and that made clear that custom-build housing is an important part of the government’s housing diversification plans. It set out further actions to support the sector, including work with lenders and supporting custom-build through its Accelerated Construction Programme. It also welcomed the establishment of the Right to Build Task Force by the National Custom and Self-Build Association (NaCSBA), which it supported with a secondment, and commitment to a possible legislative review if local authorities fail to take sufficient action.
£95,850 of New Burdens funding was then paid to local authorities between 2016/7 and 2019/20, totalling £32.2m, to support them in exercising their duties under the legislation.
The NPPF was revised in July 2018 which consolidated and strengthened government planning policy for CSB. The government then published the National Design Guide in October 2019, high-lighting the government’s priorities for well-designed places, explicitly referencing CSB.
In August 2020, the government published its planning White Paper, ‘Planning for the Future’, which included proposals to support the CSB sector, including allowing local authorities to identify land for CSB homes, exploring how publicly owned land disposal can support the self-build sector, and maintaining the exemption from the CIL. This was followed by a letter to all local authorities in October 2020 by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government further underlining the government’s support for CSB and announcing a review of the Right to Build legislation. In the November 2020 Spending Review, the government then announced the creation of a Help to Build scheme, which – when launched during 2021 – will support more people to build sustainable and more beautiful homes with an equity loan similar to Help to Buy.
In January 2021, the government published a draft National Model Design Code, which recognised the importance of CSB as part of the housing mix on larger sites. This was followed by revised planning practice guidance in February 2021, which included a range of clarifications and advice, including acknowledgment that CSB embraces a spectrum of projects which have a range of benefits. In April 2021, the government published a ‘Self and Custom-Build Action Plan’ which set out further plans to support the CSB sector, including a legislation review; a dedicated £25m Brownfield Land Release Fund to support local authorities bring forward serviced plots for CSB on public sector land; and, commissioning of the Bacon Review.
I believe that the steps which the government have taken since 2011 have been progressive and helpful to integrate CSB housing as an important part of our housing market in public policy terms and begin to address some of the main barriers holding back the growth potential of this important sector in support of diversifying our broken housing market. However, my analysis has reaffirmed by strong view that they have not yet had the desired effect to create a ‘self-build revolution’ or delivered on the government’s aspiration in the 2011 Housing Strategy to double the size of the CSB sector by 2021 and bring it within reach of ordinary people.
A timeline is available in the full report, which shows government support for Custom and Self-Build over the last 10 years.
Chapter 2: What people want
Customer choice is an important part of most aspects of how we as consumers determine what we buy. Choice is typically seen as positive – a driver of quality and value. Yet within the new homes market in England, choice is substantially constrained. Despite homes being by far the biggest item of household expenditure, we appear to have become institutionalised into a sullen acceptance that there is limited consumer choice homes. With thinking that is more akin to a Soviet-style economy than a market economy, we appear to have concluded – perhaps rather grudgingly – that the choice and quality of new homes is low and that the cost is high. The housing market appears unique in this regard.
Research by the Home Builders’ Federation – the trade body for big housebuilders – indicates that only 33% of people would consider buying a new-build home, while a Homeowner Survey by Home Owners Alliance and BLP Insurance found that the British public are shunning new homes because they are seen by some as being poorly built, characterless and with too small rooms.
Participants in the survey said things like: “New houses are rabbit hutches thrown up….with small rooms, small gardens, thin walls, dubious build quality”. According to the survey conducted by YouGov, only one in five (21%) would prefer to buy a newly built home.
My view is that the startling lack of widespread desire for new-build homes is directly linked to the lack of serious choice and variety in the homes that are built.
The desire in the population to self-commission a home
England has by some distance the lowest known rate of self-commissioned homes in the developed world. The question is whether this reflects a fundamental difference in demand or in supply. Do we not as a nation seek a home built to our design and specification in the way that home buyers in other countries do? Are our needs met by our existing stock of homes (amongst the oldest in the world) and by the speculative new build market, in ways that are not the case anywhere else? And would demand for new homes with a greater degree of customisation be additional or substitutional? What impact would growing the Custom & Self-Build market have on demand for speculatively-built new homes?
These questions have already largely been answered. The government’s white paper Fixing our Broken Housing Market stated: “The way in which the market operates constrains the supply of new homes because there is insufficient competition and innovation”. The Independent Review on Build Out found demand for Custom & Self-Build to be additional. As in all markets, greater customer choice creates greater overall demand. This is important not just for delivering more homes. Greater choice means more people aspiring to live in those new homes and therefore a greater acceptance of their being built.
In this section I seek to set out “what people want” and in particular “how many people want it”. This is set against a greater backdrop of changes in the ways we live and work, and manage our lives, which have been brought acute focus by the COVID-19 pandemic – so that people are thinking much harder about where and how to live – and how to find a home that meets their needs. At the same time, Modern Methods of Construction – and, in particular, the greater use of timber – are facilitating greater choice.
This section is complemented by the Economic Analysis starting on page 69 (see the full report) that provides the evidence underpinning the demand for new homes in more detail.
The fact that England is such an outlier when it comes to an international comparison of self-commissioned homes presents a strong assumption towards an unmet latent demand. On average 40% of new homes in developed nations are self-commissioned. This includes densely populated nations such as Belgium and Japan. This would imply 120,000 homes out of the government’s annual 300,000 target com- pared to the current estimate (across the whole of the UK) of nearer 13,000 per year.
The most recent general population surveys indicate that around one in three of us would like to self-commission a home one day. [One survey by Nationwide Building Society put the proportion higher at 53%. Another more recent Nationwide survey found a still higher proportion at 61%, which potential demand even higher among the young.] This is similar to the numbers who would consider buying a speculatively built new home. This limited demand for the product that the market currently delivers has many reasons. An inevitable consequence however is that new homes market is underserved. There are many who for reasons of faith, value, lifestyle, sustainability, disability or tastes are excluded from the limited choices available that are focused on the largest customer segments.
Desire to self-commission is strongest amongst the young and decreases with age. This is very different from the current profile of those undertaking a self or custom build where typical self-builders are in their 50s.
When those currently planning a self-build were asked what they would do if unable to proceed with their plans, intentions are almost completely divided between buying an existing home (48%) and staying put (46%). Only 6% would consider a speculative new build.
For many of those currently looking to self-commission a home, their ideal option is a detached individual house, potentially as part of a smaller development. Demand for terraced homes or apartments is limited amongst this current group, in part because such options are rarely offered in the open market (although they do frequently feature in Community-led housing).
Since 2012 the National Planning Policy Framework has required local authorities to plan for the housing need of the custom and self-build sector. This should have created a strong evidence base for local demand across England. In practice, robust analysis at strategic planning stage is rare, with a subsequent consequence on the number of plots included within the strategic planning targets.
Medium term demand is available from the Right to Build Registers that each local authority has been legally obliged to maintain since 1 April 2016. These Registers show a level of demand that is consistently below the level of international delivery or that from consumer surveys. This gap can be explained in part because only 13% of the population are aware of the Self-Build Registers including over half of self-builders. Only one in six self-builders identified as having joined a register.
The Registers themselves are therefore incomplete records of demand. Furthermore, both MHCLG and NaCSBA analysis shows a significant volume of records are removed from Registers each year, or moved within Registers such that the duties on the authority are reduced. In addition, it has become increasingly difficult to join the Register in the area where you would like to live. The most recent NaCSBA survey identified 32% of planning authorities imposing constraints to those seeking to join the key Part 1 of the Registers including substantial and unjustifiable fees and the requirement for a mortgage offer to be in place.
Where and what types of homes are wanted
A survey of customers actively exploring the possibility of self or custom building noted:
- 47% of people don’t mind whether they build their home on a single plot or alongside other new build homes
- 48% of people would like to build a bespoke home built by contractors/builders
- 21% would like to build a customisable home
- 31% would prefer to build or manage the project themselves (versus using a main contractor)
Under National Planning Policy Guidance NPPG, local authorities are advised to publish: “preferred locations in a local area, plot sizes and type of housing intended to be built, where this information has been requested by the authority and provided by an applicant.” [NPPG Paragraph: 012 Reference ID: 57-012-20210508] At the same time “Relevant authorities should use preferences expressed by those on the register to guide their decisions when looking at how to meet the duty to grant planning permission etc. This will help ensure that relevant authorities permission land suitable for self-build and custom housebuilding which people are actually keen to develop.” In practice most report nothing.
One council that does have a large Register and produces a report is Cornwall. Its report is consistent in showing amongst other statistics a distribution towards 3-bedroom homes.
Other Measure of demand and Wider Challenges
Outside the Registers themselves, evidence of significant interest can be found from the databases of those in the custom and self build sector. These include the specialist magazines and their associated plot search offerings (Plotfinder and PlotBrowser); the National Self Build & Renovation Centre; and BuildStore / Custom Build Homes. Databases individually (and therefore collectively) significantly exceed current supply. In most cases these databases refer to a particular part of the Custom and Self-Build homes market – that of individually designed and built homes. This highlights further gaps in the demand data.
Members of the public have become conditioned to a single model of new homes delivery, the speculative development market, but it is a model that most people choose not to engage in. At the same time, most people have never met anyone who has self-commissioned a home and certainly have not had routine access to opportunities to follow this route at the time they were considering their next home – and this for a housing option that is a mainstream choice in the rest of the developed world.
Customer choice does not only apply to individual open market housing. In Europe, affordable housing is frequently delivered through a group commissioning approach.
In our nation we have currently over 900 Community Led Housing groups operating. A research report commissioned by the National Community Land Trust Network in partnership with the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, Locality and UK Cohousing found that the potential pipeline of Community Led Housing is significant, totalling over 23,000 across unspecified and specified development stages. Even discounting units for which the stage of development is unknown, over 10,000 units are planned. This mirrors evidence from Homes England which suggests there are over 10,500 homes in “live applications” to the Community Housing Fund.
Bridging the Gap
Customer choice is essential to optimise the delivery of new homes in England. In the long term, international evidence suggests that the market could and should be delivering around 120,000 of the government’s 300,000 target for new homes each year.
Whilst much of this demand is latent, there is plentiful evidence that demand is in excess of current supply. Delivery at this scale requires changes across all aspects of our housing market, from customer awareness and access, through land supply and suppliers and manufacturers. In practice it is supply rather than demand that is likely to be the limiting factor, the greatest single challenge being land that is both permissioned and accessible.
In the short term, the easiest way to unlock and realise demand is to increase access in areas where demand is already strong and there is capacity to supply. Right now, this is individually-designed homes delivered by SME builders in small developments around the edges of settlements and shell apartments in larger urban centres.
In the longer term, growth is likely to be in the custom-build sector with sites offered alongside larger developments. This route offers a wider and more affordable option. This greater scale requires a greater level of investment – and new awareness from the public – in what is in effect a missing market.
Chapter 3: Raising awareness
The self-commissioning of a home is a normal part of the market in most developed nations. Given that this approach to housing is integral to all stages of the housebuilding process – and also to the house buying process – information and exemplars are readily available in most other countries, through established and trusted businesses operating at scale.
Put simply, custom and self-build is as natural a route to take as purchasing a speculatively-built house and the market has evolved to meet the needs of those wishing to pursue this approach. Speculatively-built housing remains an option and many providers works in both markets, with a choice of a new home – completed with standardised finishes and ready to move into – or a customised new home built to order and ready to move into within a few months or sometimes just weeks.
For many in these countries, information is readily available and examples and exemplars can be found amongst their family, friends, and peers. The markets also facilitate choice and there are broadly four models available for making plots and or homes available in the market, as follows:
1. Collective Show Parks and Websites
The German new-built market offers diverse choices both in terms of physical sites and on-line platforms.
Musterhaus in Germany terms itself “the House Building Portal”. Its website lists more than 2,400 homes from 350 different construction companies. Musterhaus provides a search facility akin to renting a holiday property and also has a customer-friendly focus through its Facebook page. This has over 100,000 followers and a similar number of likes.
In addition, the company lists 35 Show Parks throughout Germany. The largest Show Park is at Bad Vilbel near Frankfurt. It is well connected to the motorway network and has over 60 show homes, attracting 103,000 visitors last year.
The sites are “Destinations” which promote family visits, with a range of facilities and parking. There is a small charge for entry that can often be offset. In all there are over 1,000 Show Houses throughout Germany. Whilst there is huge choice, not all buildings are available in all locations. The focus is typically on detached homes.
Homes on the site typically are there for 10 to 15 years before being dismantled and replaced. Other sites are in residential areas. These are temporary installations secured through planning conditions and remain operational between 10-20 years, after which the homes are sold to buyers. The largest currently known park in Europe is the 7.4 hectare Blaue Lagune complex near Vienna and has some 100 homes from 25 providers. It had some 140,000 visitors during 2019, reflecting the popularity of custom and self-build in Austria where some 33% of all detached and semi-detached homes are currently prefabricated and customised. [Austrian Home Manufacturers Federation (Österreichische Fertighausverband) https://www.trivselhus.se/]
2. Individual customer-focused offerings
In Sweden houses can also be purchased online or through showrooms and through access to existing homes (with the active support of the home-owners). This model is more distributed and less capitally intense and it also reflects in part a much lower population and population density.
Trivselhus is a Swedish housebuilder. It is already operating in the UK and built the award-winning Marmalade Lane co-housing development in Cambridge. However, its Swedish consumer offering is much more advanced than that which is available in the UK. In Sweden it sells its product through a range of outlets. As in Germany, its houses can be viewed and even ordered on-line. It also operates a range of showrooms across Sweden. It has worked hard to ensure that its own customers promote its products through offering physical and virtual guided tours underpinned by a message of safely and ease.
3. Show homes and developer-led sites Australia has a well-established custom build market where a single developer purchases a plot of land, builds a show house and then offers services for a bespoke plot on its own site. In some cases the site may be shared and more delivery options are available.
It is normal for residential developers to create masterplanned communities with a wide range of housing types, including narrow urban lots, medium density dwellings and apartments as well as single detached houses. Customers are typically offered toolkits and expert advice, with a choice to commission a home or to buy brand new, together with finance packages. The customer is treated as if she is at the centre of the developer’s concerns.
The Show Park concept
FertighausWelt Cologne is one of several show parks run by the Federation of German Off Site Housing Manufacturers (BDF).
Some 24 different off-site housing manufacturers are represented, including several firms working in the UK market such as Kampa, Stommel Haus, Weber Haus, Danhaus, Hanse Haus, Huf Haus and Bau-Fritz.
The park is located on the edge of a business park along the A4 motorway. It is anchored by a visitor centre with 85 free car parking spaces, leading to a pedestrian zone aligned with serviced plots ranging between 300-550 square metres, where home manufacturers pay an annual ground rent to the show home park owners to exhibit their homes.
Visitors pay a small fee
The exhibition is open 11:00 – 18:00 from Wednesday to Sunday. Visitors pay a small entrance fee (up to 6 for a family), which is valid for a second visit. Entrance is free to visitors with an exhibitor appointment or to attend a visitor centre meeting.
To exbibit, home manufacturers must comply with a range of rules, including:
The requirement to obtain planning permission from the local council in accordance with the park’s design code (equivalent to a local development order which grants outline permission);
Payment of a 10,000 Euro penalty if a home is not completed on time for the park opening;
A 10 year initial contract to exhibit with the show home park owners. Contracts roll over for an additional five years if exhibitors do not cancel;
Payment of a management and servicing fee of 250 Euro annually;
Attendance of sales staff for each manufacturer during opening hours, or the manufacturer incurs penalties;
Complying with fair trading rules. For example, sales agents cannot collect clients from other houses or tout for business in the pedestrian zone;
Complying with rules and limitations relating to use of advertising to ensure a pleasant environment is provided for visitors.
A popular destination
In order to remain cutting edge, homes are typically replaced or renewed on an 8-15 year cycle. Company representatives say that the park is a popular destination for buyers and as a broad guide each exhibitor sells 30-50 homes a year through this sort of marketing.
Working from home
Show Parks have become increasingly popular during the Covid pandemic because more people are looking to build their own homes and work from home.
4. Local Government-led Plot Shops
In the Netherlands, the market has a substantial element of individually designed homes. In many cases for urban developments these are facilitated by the sale of plots by the local authority. Plots Shops facilitate the sale of plots and help link self-builders with available plots. The Dutch system typically supports a varied community through allowing sites to be subdivided into plots of different sizes to reflect different budgets. Until the global financial crisis the Netherland new build market was similar to the UK, dominated by speculative development. However, the Dutch response focused less on supporting large speculative housebuilders and more on facilitating individuals to self-build. Almere is a new town development on reclaimed land whilst Buikslotherham is an urban regeneration area. Both exhibit a wider variety of self-builds with a focus towards individually designed homes and apartments rather than the model home approach in Germany and Sweden. The relatively high density of The Netherlands means that terraces, squares and apartments are common forms of development and fine examples can be readily identified and viewed within most urban areas.
The large scale of Almere means that it has been able to zone its development. This has resulted in variety determined by size and design, amongst other factors. Some zones for example are specifically allocated to “homes of architectural interest”. The site also includes a form of self-build shared ownership which combines elements of variation in design with common elements to increase efficiency – for example, a standard foundation on which to build.
Buikslotherham highlights the range of self commissioned homes that can be delivered in an urban regeneration area. It includes apartments as well as terraces and also house boats on what was a previous dock area.
Current position – England
The UK self-build market is currently largely made up of architect-designed individual homes, located on individual plots and distributed across the country.
Television shows including Grand Designs attract audiences in the millions. In normal pre-pandemic times there was a very good spread of self-build and home improvement exhibitions across the country, with six figure attendances annually. Such exhibitions feature home builders but, due to the diverse nature of the sector, the bulk of activity is around window systems and doors, heating systems, renewables and products relevant to the wider home improvement market. Outside the exhibitions, there are few opportunities to obtain direct access to the sector and its offering in the ways that are common in other countries. There are individual pockets of opportunity for individuals to see for themselves the options that may be available, but these fall well short of a developed market (see map in the full report).
For customers who are unused to a self-commissioning model, as is the case in England, it is important that they are given the opportunity to see the possible product for themselves. Some providers have followed this option but they are few and far between and are distributed across the country. Creating a destination Show Park is in my view the best way to encourage the numbers needed to see the wide range of products that are actually available and to experience them for themselves. There is also the opportunity to provide space for meetings and – as with the National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon – to promote individual elements of a more bespoke self-build, as well as to meet with builders and architects to discuss features of the specification and design. The site could also include a Plot Shop. There are further benefits if manufacturing and assembly facilities are closely relocated, enabling a customer to select a product and to see how it will be built.
This may be possible on a single site, but ultimately the provision of show homes with a moderate but limited sales life is capitally intensive and a high cost for a developing business.
The alternative is to build the show homes in a location where it is designed-in from the start that they can ultimately be sold on as homes forming part of a new neighbourhood – and then a new show site is developed elsewhere (and the pattern repeated).
Moving location is likely to mean that the show home centre may be closely located but not necessarily within a single site. Although it is likely that in due course the country would benefit from a number of larger regional show home sites, as is entirely normal in Germany, it would in my view be best to start with a single site to demonstrate and refine the operating model.
As an interim stage, Homes England could play a role in purchasing and ultimately disposing of the homes and the site on the open market – effectively providing the working capital required to support the site operation.
This site could be part of – and help to define – a new garden settlement. If connected appropriately, it would attract national interest as well as becoming an engine for foreign direct investment into the UK, including home builders from abroad as well as small and medium sized companies in the UK who want to showcase their housing products.
Chapter 4: Using land the public already owns
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.
Dr Rod Hackney
Some sceptics think that while custom and self- build housing might be a distracting hobby for the well-to-do middle classes, it could not possibly play a major role in solving our housing crisis. This deeply mistaken view ignores the vital point Rod Hackney is making above. When people are given the opportunity to be involved in solving the problems they face – including their housing problems – it unleashes a creativity, an energy and a community-building capacity which is not readily available elsewhere, if at all.
Many planners in local authorities still prefer talking to a small number of large developers than asking a large number of people in a community what they really want. After all, getting people involved is time-consuming. And people can be so annoying. They change their mind. They don’t understand the important rules which council officials and elected members wrestle with every day. In some ways it looks much easier to decide what people really need based on “objective” assessments of housing need and then deliver these needs at scale. It will also probably concentrate in a smaller number of places the political flack which may arise from having to accept more housing. Yet few stop to ask why it is that so many people – who themselves have somewhere to live – should think of more housing as pollution. When Nicholas Boys Smith concludes that we should spend less time asking how to build more houses and more time thinking about how to make houses more popular, he is asking us to address our chief problem.
Some year ago, at seminar held in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre near Parliament Square, councillors from across England gathered to hear examples from other countries where a community approach – involving custom and self-build – had made a startling difference. Some were enthusiastic to learn more. But one councillor sat with his arms folded, stubbornly declaring that he wouldn’t be trying it in his area. Asked why not, he replied: ‘It wouldn’t help me meet housing need’. The dismal certainty of a councillor thinking he knows more about ‘housing need’ than people who need housing tells us there is still some distance to travel, but there are sparks of energy everywhere. Look at the enthusiasm for custom and self-build projects from Cornwall to the Orkneys, from Norwich to Liverpool and from Lewisham to Middlesbrough. Stoke Council was so determined to rebuild communities that it sold derelict houses to local people for £1 and offered cheap council loans to carry out essential repairs. The top 10 volume housebuilders may account for more than half of housebuilding but the truth is that not enough of us want to buy what they produce – even if we can afford to.
On behalf of citizens and taxpayers, the government is a significant owner of land and buildings. These assets are valued at £443 billion[footnote 8]. Their ownership is spread between many hundreds of different public bodies – from hospitals and schools to the prison service and the courts, from the Forestry Commission to county-owned farms and from other local authority land holdings to the Ministry of Defence, the Environment Agency and others. Successive governments have sold such assets to private buyers – and, on one estimate, approximately 2 million hectares of land, or around 8% of the land area of Britain – has been sold in the last 40 years[footnote 9].
One of the reasons for keeping land in public ownership is to ensure that there is enough available for services which we want to have as a community but which won’t be supplied by the market. Obvious examples include allotments – to which citizens are entitled by law – as well as public libraries, school playing fields, and so on. Over 10,000 school playing fields have been sold in the last 35 years, contributing to a legacy of increased obesity and diabetes – and increased costs for the National Health Service. Diabetes costs the NHS at least £10 billion each year. It is the leading cause of blindness for people of working age. Each week the NHS performs over 100 diabetic amputations. Total expenditure associated with diabetes is already huge and is expected to grow. Should the government on behalf of citizens and taxpayers retain more public land – in this case, ownership of school playing fields – in order to reduce costs to the NHS later?
Take another example. When prisoners leave jail after serving their prison sentence, they need at least two things: first, somewhere to stay (preferably not the drug dealer’s sofa) and second, something to do – a purpose in life – either a job, or skills training that leads to a job. It’s not easy for ex-prisoners to get somewhere to live because most landlords don’t want to risk it. It’s no easier for ex-prisoners to get work – many firms don’t want to risk employing them. Recidivism – the word criminologists use for ex-offenders committing another crime – cost taxpayers £18 billion per year. In the 1990s twelve unemployed Afro-Caribbean men – some of them ex-offenders – built their own houses in Chapeltown in Leeds, using construction skills they learned a training centre which was set up in the wake of the 1980s riots, chiefly because of the insistence and sheer determination of one young man, Claude Hendrikson, that he would simply not tolerate having streets where half the houses were derelict while he had friends and neighbours sleeping three to a room. There are many similar stories from the time when Stella Clarke and John Gillespie were driving forward the work of the Community Self Build Agency in Bristol. One local resident told the story of how she was advised to apply to the Community Self-Build Agency: “I was encouraged by the local council to apply for the CSBA Scheme, I rang them and said; “I am disabled, unemployed, on benefits and I know nothing of building.” They said; “You fit all the criteria!” I have never looked back.” Should the government on behalf of citizens and taxpayers retain more public land – in this case, land where there could be more skills training centres, in order to help communities to solve their problems, as well reducing guest numbers held at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and lowering future costs in the prison system?
There are many other possible examples. The phenomenon of “cost-shunting”, where actions by one part of the public sector – in this case, selling land in order to increase income or to save money – have the effect of increasing costs for tax-payers in other parts of the public sector, is quite rightly a matter of growing concern to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. The situation leads to a poor use of public resources. It means that the governments we elect are discharging unsatisfactorily their duty – their legal duty – to look after precious taxpayers’ money Effectively, Efficiently and Economically.
Yet it is an extraordinary fact that when planners look at housing schemes, they are not required to consider the overall social impact. True, a key watchword is ‘sustainability’ but too often this means no more or less than what an expensive lawyer at a planning enquiry wants it to mean. In terms of thinking holistically about the communities we want to see – and then designing and building places for people to live, rather than large numbers of identical boxes – we are still in the dark ages.
If a young couple with children visit a show home on a typical new build development and ask if they would be able to extend into the roof if they have another baby, they are told in no uncertain terms that it would be out of the question for structural reasons. If a more mature couple asks if there are starter homes in the scheme so their son in his late twenties no longer has to live at home, they will be told that starter homes don’t make enough money for the developer. If they ask how much sheltered accommodation is integrated into the scheme, where their elderly mother would be able to come to live so that they and her grandchildren could see each other easily, they are almost treated as if they are mad. And yet each of these examples comes much closer to the ideal of a ‘sustainable’ community than what is normally served up by the large house builders, with a green light from local planners.
When starting to plan new developments, it would be very obvious – one would think – to integrate into the approach the views of local businesses, their needs for staff, the growing possibilities for self-employment, the need for workshops and small business incubators, the views of the local NHS, mental health practitioners, and care providers – never mind (speak it softly) the actual preferences of customers – as well as making sure that the high-speed broadband connections, roads, GP surgeries and school places are delivered when they are needed, not much later when the pressure has become intolerable. But we are nowhere near having as the norm a holistic approach, which weaves together the different strands of what makes a good place to lead a life.
And yet the right to build on land at all is a right conferred through a legal process by society as a whole. There is therefore already an enormous amount of ‘we’ involved. We should not forget this. And the ‘we’ in this equation need to get much better at discerning and specifying what we have the right to expect in the places where we will have our futures. But as Lord Richard Best told this Review, “we have handed over control of the land to people who do not have the public interest in mind”.
One of the reasons for selling public land is so that private sector housebuilders may build new homes on it. While in some cases this has happened, the result has often not been more houses but rather that the landholdings of major housebuilders have increased. Such public land is not typically made available for sale to small local builders – although government policy is to support and foster the small building firm sector; when the Housing White Paper Fixing our Broken Housing Market was published in February 2017, it included in Chapter 3 an explicit policy aim of diversifying the housing market and fostering smaller building firms.
As recently as 1988, SME builders built two thirds of all houses. These smaller players – who successfully met local demand and who, crucially, depended on their local reputation for future sales – now deliver barely 12% of new housing stock. Indeed, the Federation of Master Builders points out that since 2017 the number of planning applications granted for “minor residential applications” (defined as between 1 to 9 dwellings) has fallen from 43,610 in 2016/2017 to 34,065 in 2020/2021.
Smaller builders have largely been squeezed out by very big companies who can afford the time and cost involved in negotiating a path through the complex thickets of the planning system. It is no use blaming the big housebuilders for this. And mere exhortations that these private businesses must “do their duty” by building more houses, more quickly, will fall on deaf ears. As major companies they are already doing their duty – their fiduciary duty to their shareholders – and the fact that these companies have vastly reduced in number while growing hugely in size – and that the SME Builder sector has nearly been destroyed – is a direct consequence of a regulatory environment which is both exceptionally complex and fraught with risk, so that the gaining of planning consents requires both very deep pockets and the ability to bear significant risks over very long periods of time. The concentration of most housebuilding into fewer and fewer hands is quite simply an evolutionary response by big housebuilders to the regulatory environment in which they are required to operate. And to change the course of evolution, one must change the conditions.
The broader question is a simple one. Should the government use the fact that it already owns public land – as a steward on behalf of citizens and taxpayers – as a tool to achieve broader goals of public policy, where it can be shown that the achievement of those goals would be materially assisted by its holding on to public land over a long period? Or would it be better simply to sell it to the highest bidder on the basis that by definition “the market” will find the best use for the asset?
The next chapter explores further the way in which – under the current housebuilding model – large housebuilders actually chiefly compete for land rather than retail customers, so that the concept of a “competitive market” as an economist would understand it is largely misplaced. But given the current very strikingly oligopolistic arrangements, it is my view that government would be entirely justified in using the fact of its landownership to explore the pursuit of a wider range of public policy goals, while also achieving better financial value over the long term for its land holdings.
Given the great seriousness of our current housing problems, the exclusion of a whole young generation from the chance of home ownership; the fact that more than 4.8 million households are under significant housing stress including 2 million households in the Private Rented Sector facing potential difficulty, including many who have wanted to buy but have been unable to afford to do so, and who face poverty in 20 years’ time when their incomes will drop but their rents won’t iii; the persistent difficulty in retaining NHS staff nurses and the consequent increased cost to taxpayers of expensive agency nurses[footnote 10]; the difficulties and associated extra costs of inadequate efforts to retain expensively-trained military personnel[footnote 11]; the need and persistent difficulty in recruiting and then retaining teachers in difficult to fill subjects vi, as well as the important subject of reducing reoffending vii, all indicate that a more strategic approach to the deployment of public resources including public land – to meet a wide range of housing needs – would, if done creatively and imaginatively, using the offer of commissioning one’s own house on public land through CSB housebuilding (across a wide range of tenures) as a recruitment and retention tool, yield very significant public policy benefits as well as significant long-term benefits to taxpayers.
Indeed, some experts[footnote 13] have pointed out that the concept of “less than best” is no longer relevant in the context of the UK planning system, as reordered in the 2004 planning reforms and the current NPPF, and that “Less than Best” is simply an anachronism that was necessary in a land use planning system, which we have not had since 2004. Most mainland European countries are way ahead of us in adopting spatial planning practices and policies, which also explains why the sale of public land on terms that enable the achievement of social and environmental outcomes, as well as economic ones, is so unexceptional and unproblematic across continental Europe.
Ownership of land offers government a huge advantage in solving an array of problems, not just housing problems. It has only to seize this advantage. Lord Richard Best told the Review that “whoever controls the land always wins in the end”. It is now time to use public land more creatively to ensure that citizens and taxpayers win.
Chapter 5: Learning from Overseas
To inform my plan I have looked in some detail at other international self-commissioned new build housing markets in developed economies to understand what delivery models dominate these markets and identify key learnings for boosting our sector in the UK.
It is clear from my analysis that the proportion of self-commissioned housing as a percentage of new housebuilding in other markets continues to be far higher than in England and the wider UK. To demonstrate this, CWE provided updated estimates for a range of selected countries produced by the National Custom and Self Build Association in 2016 also published by the government in 2011[footnote 14] and prepared new estimates where this was possible. This showed that on average about one in four of all new homes in the markets re- searched for this report are self-commissioned. Indeed, in some markets like Austria, Germany, Poland and Japan, self-commissioned housing is the dominant form of housebuilding – and, in others, it makes a significantly greater contribution to housing supply than in the UK market.
My analysis has also shown that whilst many countries have experienced a growth in speculative volume housebuilding in recent decades, the rate of custom and self-build housing has remained relatively steady. Although the housing markets and consumer expectations of new housing vary widely between countries, I am also clear that in many developed economies it is routine for developers and local authorities regularly to prepare serviced plots for sale for people to commission the construction of their own homes from contractors or package companies, or where land and build packages are offered on large housing sites.
This contrasts starkly with the UK where the housing market has progressively shifted towards larger housebuilders who promote and buy large tracts of land to build speculative housing without engagement with the end user – the customer – who normally gets no choice, or very limited choice, over the design of homes which are built and offered for sale – and where the serviced plot and self-commissioned housing model rarely features at any scale.
The trend towards the largest developers is intensified by an increasingly complex planning and regulatory regime and State intervention to boost large scale housebuilding, favouring large site allocations and larger developers while undermining the ability of small and medium sized house builders to retain a foothold in the market.
As part of my review, I have looked more closely at the markets in Germany, France, The Netherlands, the United States, Australia and New Zealand and Japan. My focus in this section is on the nature of the supply of homes and land. Previous sections have provided details as to how individuals can access the market for homes and plots.
Germany has comparatively higher rates of housebuilding and a much less volatile housing market registering 293,000 housing completions in 2019. Much of this housing is small in scale with larger housing construction projects being the exception.
The house building market is dominated by smaller and medium sized regional and sub-regional housebuilders who build a wide variety of homes; with a broader mix of investors, including build-to-rent; and a more predictable, front-loaded and streamlined plan-led planning system that facilitates the steady release of land and the construction of new homes.
The land tax system is similar but in Germany the capital gains tax rules place a stronger emphasis on long-term investment.
A key market feature is that the German housing market is characterised by high levels of self-commissioned house building (55% of all homes). This is because there is a strong cultural preference to build single-family or semi-detached homes, but also lower levels of home ownership at 43%, compared to 65% in the UK. In Germany, custom and self-build mortgages are widely available from local banks and building societies. Show home villages actively promote this form of homebuilding to consumers; self-commissioned housing is popular nationally, with one in every five new detached and semi-detached homes originating from an off-site, custom build housing manufacturer, many of which are represented in these Show Park villages.
Local authorities play a central role in bringing serviced plots to market for local people to build their own homes. Local land-use plans ‘Flächennutzungsplan’ are used to make area-wide housing allocations which establish the principle of development and provide certainty for home builders.
They also guide the preparation of more detailed zoning plans ‘Bebauungsplan’ for areas of change or new development. They also make effective use of Section 34 of the Federal Building Code which states that development in a built-up area is permissible if it ‘blends in’ with the character of the immediate surroundings, taking account of the designation of the site in the local plan. Development in line with the allocated zone receives permission in principle, although a planning application (building permit) is still needed. Once adopted, the local plan is kept under review. Local authorities also routinely integrate custom and self-build housing when larger sites are planned to accelerate build-out, with parcels reserved for collective projects and building plots alongside other forms of housing – an approach which featured in the recommendations of the Independent Review of Build Out undertaken by Sir Oliver Letwin and published in 2018. This system enables plots to come to market regularly and there are several online housing portal which link consumers to plots and builders[footnote 15].
Many local authorities assemble housing land using a formal ‘land pooling’ and ‘reallocation’ process ‘Umlegung’ or through the use of Urban Development Measures ‘Städtebauliche Entwicklungsmaßnahmen’, set out in statute. The land pooling instrument is particularly favoured by smaller rural authorities to bring forward affordable custom and self-build plots for local people, although cities like Bonn, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich have also used land pooling. Stuttgart for example has brought forward 45 sites for 14,000 homes in over 20 years; Kaiserslautern 70 sites for almost 3,000 homes in similar time and Dortmund delivered 8 sites for 1,000 homes in just four years.
Land Assembly measures in Germany The land pooling process allows local authorities to designate an area for land assembly and then negotiate with landowners to rearrange land ownerships and prepare serviced plots. Plots are then sold back to owners at prices covering the costs of infrastructure and the pooling process, or they are allocated plots which they can then build on or sell with or without restrictions. If landowners are unwilling to participate, compulsory purchase can be used following existing procedures, although this is rare. The process which councils follow is clearly set out in statute to provide consistency across areas and transparency with landowners and the public.
To stop land speculation the assembly process allows existing use values to be frozen and the process to be started before the local plan is changed to allocate the site for housing. This enables pooling to take account of the original value of the land and reduce land prices. New housing can only be built once the local plan has been changed or the site receives planning permission.
Urban Development Measures allow local authorities to designate ‘urban development zones’ and use ‘urban development contracts’ to develop green field or large brownfield sites for housing in the public interest. This enables them to buy land at existing use value and bring forward building plots for local people quickly, often for building groups (Baugruppen or Baugemeinschaften) at relatively low prices. Cities like Tübingen have made extensive use of these measures to bring forward custom build housing for local people.
Plots are also widely provided to local people on a leasehold (Erbparcht) basis by councils, particularly in Bavaria and other rural areas, in order to reduce costs and incentivise building.
The public sector retains ownership of the land with a building lease as a charge on the property (usually up to 99 years with short term leasehold and purchase options available).
Leaseholders can then build a home in their ownership but must pay plot service costs. Leases are typically paid quarterly and linked to the Consumer Price Index. They can also be extended. If the landowner (council) wants to take ownership of the property, they must compensate the homeowner for two-thirds of the current value of the home.
I heard from Dr Michael LaFond who said that the Berlin State now exclusively leases its land and offers sites to building groups and co-operatives to build high quality homes within set time periods. Sites are typically ‘concept tendered’ where applicants must demonstrate how they will create innovative, well-designed, affordable housing for disadvantaged population groups. This approach is now widely used by Councils across Germany. Dr LaFond stated: “Berlin has gone into the business of buying property from the market with the first right of refusal. This means that if a property comes onto the market, the city can intervene and buy it or say we would like someone else to buy it, which could be a cooperative. It is sort of like neighbourhood protection from gentrification”. Herr Cord Soehlke, who is “Baubürgermeister” for the City of Tübingen (indirectly-elected Mayor for Building) described an idea they created called a “roof co-operative”, where the City of Tübingen and private partners created one big co-operative, with various different projects all under one roof, This offered a great deal of freedom to individual projects, with potentially 30 or 40 different projects all under this one co-operative: As Herr Soehlke explained: “All the technical and legal parts can be dealt with at this higher level, while at the bottom level of the co-operative is the project energy, where the people provide the passion and energy for the project – they can choose their own architect and project manager, but it is a still a co-operative”.
Notwithstanding such measures, the German housing market is finding it increasingly difficult to deliver housing which meets demand and is affordable, particularly in urban areas, with key barriers including lack of housing land and complex regulation. This is now being addressed through new laws which have recently been approved by the German parliament (see box below).
Legislative action to promote more affordable housing in Germany
The new German law on the mobilisation of building land (“Baulandmobilisierungsgesetz”) came into force in June 2021 and has made sweeping changes to enable more affordable housing. This includes:
- Time-limited changes to allow built up areas to be zoned specifically for subsidised affordable housing.
- Extended rights of first refusal for municipalities to intervene where land allocated in a local plan and is being sold, allowing them to buy the land under the same terms as agreed with the buyer, subject to certain conditions like being in a high housing demand area.
- Enabling Councils to stop the conversion of rental apartments into owner occupation where more than five residential units are involved.
- Time limited extension of the law enabling Councils to accelerate the preparation of zoning plans for sites with homes up to 10,000 sqm floorspace, where they adjoin existing settlements.
- A new “village residential zone” land use category to enable more development in villages and enabling higher density development through changes to makes zoning laws more flexible, including greater use of permitted development rights.
Despite high prices and housing shortages in the Paris region, France has steadily built on average about six homes per 1,000 inhabitant every year, with some 408,000 housing starts in 2019. Home ownership at 58% is lower than in the UK, but not dramatically so. A large social housing sector has contributed significantly, with the aid of direct subsidies to housing investment and production levels.
Many French people still favour single homes and about 1 in 3 homes (31%) are self-commissioned, mostly built by the large number of SME home builders. Planning is largely devolved to the communes or the Metropole for larger cities. As in Germany, there is a broadly a zone-based planning system in France applied through binding local plans (Plan Local d’Urbanisme), but with more discretion to make decisions within designations.
Significant effort is put into land assembly by municipalities and communes but there are state agencies with powers to buy and sell land (including through compulsory purchase) and collect taxes on development value.
Although prices are rising it is very common to find serviced building plots on the edge of towns and villages. These are usually facilitated by the local Mayor who directly acquires an area of farming land (at agricultural land values), and then secures permission for the land to be re-zoned for housing, which is then serviced by local contractors for sale at fixed price to local people to build their own homes, often with some local conditions imposed. The creation of affordable housing and retaining people in the community are key drivers for this action.
United States of America
The USA is similar to the UK in that house-building is almost wholly a private sector activity, apart from some very targeted social housing development in urban areas. In May 2021 housing starts rose 3.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.572 million units.
The country operates a diverse, federal state-controlled, but highly regulated land use zoning system (California notoriously strict, Texas notoriously flexible). In general, housing is more affordable across the US despite higher GDP per capita and on average homes that are larger than in the UK.
Unlike in the UK, there is a significant private sector land development industry which supplies serviced land to volume housebuilders. Although the US developed the mass production of standardised suburban housing, significant consumer pressure to produce more differentiated products has significantly diversified choice for homeowners. This has led to a steady increase in customisable housing where buyers can design their bespoke home online.
It is now normal practice for building companies to offer a one-stop-shop to new customers which allows choice over plot and house design. Large homebuilders like KB Home who is one of the top 10 builders in the USA, having built over 11,000 homes in 2019, for example, offer customers a wide range of customisable house types on their sites. The company prides itself that no two of its homes are ever the same because it gives the customer the ability to personalise their new home, from floor plans to exterior elevations, to design options and choices over their plot.
The US government also has a national Mutual Self-Help Housing programme which provide loans to low-income families to build their own homes through non-profit self-help ‘grantee’ housing organisations. The programme has facilitated more than 50,000 low-income families to build their own homes through non-profit self-help housing organisations.
Self-help (sometimes also called ‘sweat equity’) means homes are built wholly or partly by their purchasers. People’s Self-Help Housing for example is the longest-serving non-profit housing organization on California’s Central Coast and exclusively targets low-income working families who cannot access decent and affordable housing. Under the self-help model families join together to build each other’s homes, earning equity, reducing construction costs, and making lasting investments in their community.
Most new housing in Australia is delivered by property developers who build customised new homes for new home buyers. Developers buy land once it is zoned and released for housing by the local council as part of their ‘Local Planning Schemes’ (local zoning plans). These plans typically include standards for plot sizes, required set-backs from boundaries and garden space. Special provisions are also included for multi-unit developments. In many cases, design guides and Codes are prepared by landowners as part of new estates.
The builders then service the land, and either build homes and sell them as a complete house and land deal, or offer a number of standard or customisable home designs that are built to order.
G.J. Gardner Homes is one of Australia’s top 10 home builders, building about 2,000 homes a year across Australia, and has also expanded into the New Zealand and North American markets. The company offers off-the-plan builds for its customers from over 100 options, bespoke design custom home house and land package. It has a unique franchise model where local custom home builders, sub-contractors and suppliers are contracted by the company to build the homes for customers.
Our analysis shows that about half of the new build housing market in Australia offers customers customisable new housing. This includes German-style building group developments which are coming forward around cities, especially in Western Australia.
Australia also has a First Home Loan Deposit Scheme which supports eligible first home buyers to build or purchase a new home. Owner builder loans for self-builders are also offered, but to access these loans people need an owner builder licence and must complete a recognised course.
Japan has one of the largest new housing markets in the world (6.42 new homes per 1000 people). Housing development involves individual households recycling their plots back onto the market. This means housing suppliers do not profit from trading in the land market.
Unlike in other countries, Japanese homes are typically replaced within about 30 years given that housing gradually depreciates over time. Our estimate is that some 56% of all homes are customisable, many being apartments, with 75% of newly built detached homes commissioned by individuals and built on their own plot of land.
Most of these homes are built by smaller local builders or larger regional or national suppliers like Sekisui House using factory-based systems using modern methods of construction which are customisable.
Japan’s planning is also zone-based where the government sets out clear guidelines on what can be built in each area. If new development complies with the rules it is allowed by right. This has helped with providing more certainty for house building. In 2018, Japan saw 942,000 housing starts.
Contrary to what many may think, it is perfectly possible to apply self build principles to apartment as well as houses. The fully completed and sold Black Jack Apartments in the Netherlands are a fine example of this approach to urban self building. This apartment is an important part of a highly successful urban redevelopment of a previously industrial area, which includes both self build terraces and house boats. Blackjack is a 38m high, mixed residential and commercial building that includes 8 and a half stories of residential self build.
The exterior of the Black Jack development was defined by the architect with clean modern lines of floor to ceiling glass exterior walls (or doors, or windows – you choose) surrounded on each level by a continuous terrace. The architect also designed the core central features – lifts and stairs and services. The approximately 300m2 on residential each floor was then divided into approximately six hubs of just under 50m2 – 48 hubs in total. These hub units could then be combined horizontally or vertically to create larger units. Homeowners could select both the size of their apartment and importantly also its layout as well. This is because the apartment is delivered as a shell with the customer free to choose the location, size and arrangement of the rooms (in-house architects providing a service if required). Clearly plans need to comply with relevant building regulations.
The building was delivered by way of Collective Private Commissioning. This is typically a non profit association, which acts as the principal to the architect and contractor of the project formed from the purchasers of the units. Cost efficiency is achieved through a lack of developer profits, and through the costs savings that come from the choices of how to kit out each shell. Mortgages were available for those who needed them.
This approach of subdivision into small hubs, that can then be combined, is also applied to conversions of offices to residential spaces. The result increases affordability, choice and creates a more mixed community through the access to different sized plots. The first self-build shell apartments are now beginning to appear in London.
Despite its size, the Netherlands has led the way in innovation in the custom and self-build housing sector, with the new town of Almere being an international model of what can be achieved at scale and cities like Amsterdam, The Hague and Delft initiating a wide range of projects on public land.
The historic city of Delft, which hosts the University of Technology – the highest-ranked university in the Netherlands – has used custom and 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. See page 61 in the full report.
I am clear that our custom and self-build industry continues to lag far behind other developed countries.
Although each housing market is different and is highly dependent on local culture, administrative, regulatory and financial regimes that exist in each housing market, there are a number of notable conclusions for my analysis of other market which I think are relevant to the UK.
Land Assembly / infrastructure – most other countries have a more developed land development or land assembly function. In Europe this is largely a public sector function, in the US and Australia there are private land development companies. In both cases the output is the provision and sale of permissioned serviced plots to both individuals and housebuilders.
Planning – the planning system in almost every country is based on some form of zoning which allows the owner of zoned land to build whatever is permitted by the rules. There are different levels of flexibility in different regimes. However, essentially one has a right to build whatever is permitted by the zoning regulations.
SME builders – custom and self-build is largely delivered by smaller and medium sized, often local, builder. Boosting serviced plots, will drive up SME housebuilding significantly.
Customer Choice – other markets offer homeowners far greater choice over the type and design of their homes. Even volume builders in the US and Australia offer significant customer choice and options to customise their homes. The German show home park concept is a key driver for take up.
Delivery at scale – there is no doubt that custom and self-build housing on serviced plots can be delivered on both small and very large sites.
Customisation and Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) – customisable homes are very dominant in other markets and many use MMC.
Support – other countries offer custom and self-builders more support, whether through schemes like the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme in Australia, Self Help Housing Programme in the US or easy access to mortgage finance in Germany.
Chapter 6: Delivering real change that works
The lack of choice and competition within our new homes market has significant consequences for our nation in regard to both the demand for new homes and public attitudes towards housebuilding in general. We can build more and better homes that more people want to live in, which are greener and cost less to run, which communities are happier to see built – and which ordinary people on normal incomes can afford to buy.
As evidenced elsewhere in this report, the capacity to deliver more self-commissioned homes already exists here in United Kingdom and also overseas, if we should wish to fill a supply gap in the short term. There is a very strong evidence base of demand for self-commissioned homes that is additional to the existing supply of new homes. If more opportunities existed for consumers to commission a home of their own, then capital – attracted by dependable returns – would flow into this currently under-served market, creating jobs, skills and wealth. Other economic and social benefits would ensue from a nation housed in safe, warm, healthy, well-designed and energy-efficient homes.
At the heart of the issue of our broken housing market is the current delivery model – increasingly hard-wired into the system – which produces an homogenous product that most people would not consider buying, which is on average smaller than anywhere else in Western Europe, which routinely falls short on supposed energy efficiency standards and is becoming ever more expensive.
How did we get here? Leaving the delivery of new homes almost exclusively to the private sector, a decision made in the late 20th century, should in theory have led to a highly efficient industry, driven by market forces to be innovative and diverse, with supply rising to meet demand. Yet somehow the very lifeforce of a functioning, free market – competition – has been stifled. The new homes market is increasingly controlled by a small number of large housebuilders. SME housebuilders, individuals and community groups are increasingly left to pick up the leftover sites that don’t fit the ‘cookie cutter’.
The reasons that the number of SME house-builders has declined over the past 20-30 years are well documented; the winnowing effect of boom and bust cycles in house prices, increasingly burdensome red tape, consolidation driven by the need to control land supply into a focus not on building new homes but instead making changes to the existing housing stock. It is ironic that the outcome of leaving housebuilding to the private sector is output every bit as bad as that of a centrally planned economy; characterised by under- supply, inefficiency, a lack of innovation and low productivity.
With their ‘landbanks’, addiction to taxpayer subsidy and supernormal profits, the big house-builders are an easy target, but it is short-sighted to blame them or to attempt to curtail their output though market intervention. They are themselves a product of a system introduced in 1947 – The Town and Country Planning Act – which effectively froze in time the pattern of settlements as it was in 1941 and nationalised development rights[footnote 16].
Competing to secure the means of production necessary to continue trading (roughly speaking, this means holding at least a six year land supply for a large housebuilder) is a natural response for any business. Optimising returns by managing output and keeping out competitors to avoid the oversupply of regional markets is exactly what shareholders demand.
A more liberal land market could have resulted in a very different outcome, much more akin to housing delivery models seen in the oversees studies presented in this report. But England is different, not least because land ownership itself is highly concentrated amongst individuals, institutions and corporations that take a long term view on holding this asset class. Add in a plan-led system that is convoluted, slow and expensive to navigate, made worse by inefficient and inconsistent land value capture mechanisms, and the effective outcome is a very high barrier to entry for new, alternative models of housing delivery.
The political sensitivity of housebuilding also ensures that what little land does come forward for development is predominantly made up of large strategic sites that only the largest corporations can finance. Individuals, community groups and SME housebuilders are unable to compete. They lack the resources to promote land and secure an allocation for housebuilding or to fund front loaded land value capture mechanisms and unlike affordable housing providers are rarely brought in to take on part of a multi plot site.
There is widespread recognition that the system is broken, yet the status quo suits those making the planning decisions as much as the big house-builders and crucially, also the politicians whose constituents militantly object to ‘concreting over the countryside’. Under the current system, the inevitable political fallout from new housebuilding is highly concentrated on only a few voters. Meanwhile, under resourced planning departments can condense their workload by meeting land supply targets through allocating a small number of large strategic sites.
In theory it makes sense to centralise plan making and the means of production to mass produce housing for the nation cheaply and efficiently, rather than leave it to individuals or the relative inefficiency of SMEs. The benefits, however, are overwhelmingly in favour of the big corporations, which control land options, are able to hold significant influence over the planning process, exercise near monopoly control over new homes markets on a regional basis and use economies of scale to drive down costs and boost profit margins rather than increase output.
The outcome of the current system is that housebuilders compete with each other in the land market and not the product market. Unlike almost any other aspect of the modern consumer society, new homes are not shaped by the market forces of the customer, but those of the land market, which inflates prices, supresses the size of new homes and gardens, leads to the homogenisation of product and constrains output.
My aim is not to replace the existing model of housing delivery but to improve on it by offering another alternative, at scale. To do this we need to address the challenges that are leading to the current under supply.
Approach to delivery
Whilst the custom and self build market is a spectrum defined by the principle of customer choice, it can be broadly separated into three delivery approaches.
Individual self build homes – these homes are typically single dwellings as a result of infills within or on the edge of existing settlements, replacement dwellings and conversions. These homes are typically individually designed, often using an architect / designer and built by a local builder. A high proportion use elements of modern methods of construction, and there is a strong incentive for long term owners to invest in energy efficiency and quality to reduce ongoing running and maintenance costs. These homes represent the majority of current supply, not least as they represent the main access route to land for individuals. There is significant potential to grow this sector, and at speed, in particular in areas of high housing demand and outside of larger settlements.
Small custom build developments – these are typically sites of up to around 20 homes on the edge of existing settlements. These homes may be offered as serviced plots or as customisable homes by a single developer who uses a design code to ensure the harmony of the site and with the wider area. There is significant potential to grow this sector, with high demand from those seeking the benefits of choice and of doing so alongside others and as part of a community.
Custom build developments within larger sites – for the market to become mainstream, the sector needs to develop on larger sites. These larger sites offer the potential for more affordable land and the opportunity for some greater flexibility with regards design and appearance. This market has the potential to become the prime delivery model but is currently the least developed, not least because it requires a scale of operation that does not currently exist to operate efficiently. There are also strong disincentives for large housebuilders who control such sites to bring in competitors for their own product, as well as the challenges of sharing access to a construction site with other parties outside of their direct control.
Delivering permissioned land through the planning process
Permissioned land is without doubt the single greatest constraint to the growth of the self commissioned housing market. Access to the land market through the provision of serviced plots is key to increasing delivery. This is a challenge faced by the whole sector but one that appears weighted against those that seek to provide housing diversity such as community groups.
The supply of homes is regulated by a plan-led system that is inefficient in delivering the right homes in the right places. I commend and support the Planning for the Future White Paper and the proposals to update and improve the planning system. The resistance to change is a projection of the current failing system where the losers are the silent majority seeking a greater range of more and better homes, a system heavily weighted in favour in ‘insiders’ at the expense of ‘outsiders’.
Obtaining planning consent is slow, burdensome, complex, expensive, and uncertain. Numerous witnesses have made the claim that the planning system is geared specifically towards the needs of volume house builders and large projects. This, in conjunction with the widely cited and self-evident resourcing pressures on planning departments, means that they have less capacity to engage with smaller scale plans. Witness testimony has set out how the reduction in local planning department capacity and an inevitable “tick box” approach.
Since 2012 the planning system has needed to consider the demand for custom and self build homes. In practice such activity is rarely undertaken in a robust way. The result is that local plans rarely reflect either the underlying demand or the underlying preferences of the market.
The sector is significantly supported by the Right to Build legislation. This works to a different (shorter) cycle to the local plan process. This creates its own challenges not least the view from some that a local plan can trump this primary legislation. In practice both duties must be met, but the Right to Build duties are best met through a local plan that anticipates and accommodates the Right to Build.
The stated aim of the Right to Build legislation (as amended by the Housing and Planning Act 2016) was to double the size of the sector by 2020. This has not happened. Whilst the legislation has increased awareness and has been enthusiastically embraced by many local authorities aware of the benefits that such homes bring there has been too much inactivity and it some cases direct and shameful action to subvert the legislation. This includes:
- Local authorities stating it is acceptable to count every single residential planning permission as custom and self build.
- Local authorities adding unsubstantiated additional costs onto their already high fees.
- Local authorities requiring individuals to have a mortgage offer (for which they need access to permissioned land) before they can join a register aimed at helping them find permissioned land. This also excludes any assessment of demand from those seeking an affordable self commissioned home.
The government has announced a review to make the Right to Build deliver as intended and this is needed before the legislation becomes optional.
In addition to addressing loopholes, it is important that the legislation and the planning framework provides a route to delivery of the plots that are needed. This is about delivering the right homes in the right places – ensuring buildings that are at ease with their surroundings and development on a scale appropriate with their surroundings.
In the short term there is substantial undersupply and high demand for single plots and smaller scale developments. The latter in particular would benefit from and windfall / exception site policy linked to any under-delivery in response to latent demand but also and importantly under the Right to Build.
When made aware of the benefits many land-owners favourite a custom and self build approach. This is not just for the quality of the homes that are delivered, but due to the opportunity to sell land on a retail rather than wholesale basis. Too often however initial enthusiasm is dampened by a system focused on the sale to a single developer reinforced by a less favourable tax system for individual plot sales (see below).
The constraints are not just the access to land that is capable of being permissioned, it is the planning approach itself. Our planning approval system too often seeks to maintain the mediocrity of the past and fails to recognise the variation that exists, and is integral to, the beauty of our established settlements. Too much effort is being wasted on matters that are of marginal significance. Customers rather than planners are far better at making valued judgements over the quality and appearance of their home, albeit within a design code framework that delivers an appropriate level of harmony and alignment.
Lack of supply
It is hard to understate the challenge presented by the lack of access to development land, and the impact that it has on the supply of homes. It is not just the absence of land but the challenge of finding land and taking it through the planning process, from application, (appeal) and approval. This process involves time, money, and an appetite for risk. It is a process that many simply elect not to take and the housing supply that exists now is primarily the market a response to the challenges of access to land. Most self-builds are built by local builders. The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) survey found 82% of its members who had built a new home had done so to the design or specification of the homebuyer. Self build and micro development are closely related and the delivery of single plots is an important mechanism for growing the sector. Provide more opportunities for land on which to build and the market can grow to meet demand. For smaller developers this means more work initially through transferable skills but in the longer term through a larger workforce and / or modern methods of construction.
Custom and self build is not only already present on single plots. Many smaller local builders are willing to offer flexibility on design and specification on smaller multi-plot sites. This may be an active strategy (for cash flow reasons), part of their service led approach in response to the client needs, or a deliberate sales led approach. Smaller developers face wider challenges in addition to land including and importantly access to funding (see below).
Graven Hill represents the single largest custom and self build site in the UK. It has acted as a valuable source of learning for the delivery of such sites at scale. It has pioneered in the UK the use of design codes alongside a supportive planning process. It has shown how some customers are deterred by a full freedom of choice and the role in the market for a customisable model. This option is preferred by those who are time poor, and like the certainty that comes with such an approach. Graven Hill has also highlighted the challenges of access to mortgage finance and with some aspects of taxation, in particular VAT (see below).
Delivering custom build on large scale can be broadly divided into the delivery of serviced plots and the delivery of the homes on those plots. Delivering plots at scale requires the emergence of enablers acting from the earliest stage of the development process through to the sale of the plots. The delivery of homes on these plots requires a more significant investment in sales and production capability, from multiple companies providing choice and competition. This missing market is an attractive opportunity but enterprise needs to have confidence in the ability to create the scale market that should exist but which has to date struggled to emerge.
Access to finance
Custom and self build is a financially attractive opportunity for developers. Funding is typically provided in stages, often upfront by the customer. This reduces risk, improves cash flow, and reduces funding requirements for the developer.
The market is currently well served with funding except for those with smaller deposits. This is primarily due to regulatory constraints rather than the risk appetite of lenders. The nature of the custom and self build process means that the current Help to Buy scheme cannot be used in most cases. This gap will be closed by Help to Build which is an important element in opening up the market to a greater range of buyers. However, the residential lending market has been woefully slow in reflecting the quality and sustainability of many custom and self build homes and this could become a significant inhibitor to growth (see below).
Despite the attractiveness of the funding profile for developers, this is not typically understood by the development finance markets who to date have failed to adapt their approach and their equity requirements to this different profile, a problem replicated with Homes England funding. This makes it hard for businesses to enter and expand within this market.
Modern Methods of Construction and sustainable homes
It is hard to empirically prove but it is generally accepted that custom and self build has been at the forefront of the development of more sustainable homes. This is most noticeable in the energy efficiency of the home but increasingly in the embedded energy and the move to net zero. The last detailed report on the sector [footnote 17] from completions in 2016 and earlier identified that: Around 50% of all self build homes had a sustainable primary heat source with air-source heat pumps being the most common (22%) followed by solar (11%) and ground source heat pumps (8%). The same report identified that around 50% of all homes were built using an MMC approach with the most common being timber frame (35%) and SIPs (8%).
The increased use of timber is highly suited to a customisable build. Greater use of timber, both inside and outside, brings particular benefits to a customised model due to the increased flow through into offsite construction and the subsequent speed of assembly. This in turn helps facilitate a market where there is the unlinking of the development of the land and the building of the home. As we have seen in Germany this allows the development of Show Home Parks a critical gap in the UK currently. Greater use of timber requires homes that are safe and can be maintained. International experience demonstrates both these to be readily achievable.
The challenges of Tax
The tax system is broadly supportive to the delivery of new homes. However, it is a system that has been developed in response to a speculative build model. In a limited number of places, it is yet to be suitably flexed to accommodate self and custom build so as to not favour one approach to home delivery over another.
The result is not a greater tax take but a suppression of market activity and / or a route to delivery that is more tax efficient but less build efficient. Action to level the playing field will increase activity and in doing so facilitate more economic activity and a greater overall direct and indirect tax take.
The role of Homes England
Despite the refence to diversity within its strategic plan, Homes England has been overly focussed on the easiest possible way for it to deliver the largest number of homes. As such it has reinforced rather than challenged the dominance of the largest housebuilders. It has no records to demonstrate the numbers of custom and self-build homes that it has delivered or the amount of funding it has supplied. However willing in theory; its processes and controls are not designed for the market that it clearly does not fully understand.
Homes England is changing. Its new purchasing approach is more inclusive and it is showing an appetite to at long last address the need for greater diversity within our housing market. It is embracing new technology and MMC but appears to have done so through the lens of a large builder (lots of the same) rather than a customer focussed manufacturer (such as the car market) offering mass customisation.
The Homes England Strategic Plan states: “We accelerate delivery, tackle market failure where it occurs and help to shape a more resilient and diverse housing market.” Now is the time to deliver on that statement, through ensuring that appropriate custom and self build plots are an assumed part of any Homes England development in the format most appropriate for the market and the site.
The Route Map
My recommendations below set out the detailed changes that I believe are needed to support growth in all parts of the custom and self build market.
- The core of any change is access to development land through a reformed planning system that is better attuned to delivering the opportunities to build the homes that people want to live in. This means serviced plots, whether single sites, small multi plot sites or parts of a large strategic land site.
- Planning consent for ‘reserved matters’ details needs to be rules based and simpler to navigate, allowing housebuyers to make decisions on customisable elements of a new home on a serviced plot predictable, and securing lawful consent fast and simple. This is key to enabling developers to offer choice. Change this and we will reinvigorate SME builders and empower community led housing as well bringing diversity back into our housing market.
Make these changes and the evidenced demand for individually commissioned homes will lead to growth in the sector. There will still remain a substantial missing market for customisable new homes. This market has huge potential to deliver increased competition and quality and efficiency into the new homes market with the benefit of scale, but there is a current “chicken and egg” challenge.
Delivery of mass customisation is strongly aligned to modern methods of construction (well established in overseas markets). It delivers additionality of supply but needs confidence that the market will emerge and the land will be available, at the level an effective scale market requires. Homes England have a critical role to play here and an established (if underactive) capacity to address market failures.
Some of this new market risks being under served by the challenges of access to finance. Help to Build is key but the lending market needs to flex towards the nature of the sector, and do more to embrace greener and more efficient technologies. As with tax, the changes required are fine tuning rather than fundamental but they are important.