Self-build homes face a new set of obstacles

Government attacked for 'strangling' the self-build homes movement

The government's planning and housing policies are a "nimbys' charter" set to "strangle" the self-build sector, says one of Britain's self-build experts. Jason Orme, who built his own home and edits Homebuilding & Renovating magazine, describes the coalition's professed support for self-build as "a joke".

Housing minister Grant Shapps says the coalition will instruct councils to create registers of potential self-builders and allocate them land, including some private plots "donated" by volume house-builders, as a condition of receiving planning consent to construct large schemes. In return, at least some self-builders, chiefly in high-priced rural areas, would have to agree that their completed homes would be classified as local social housing and not be sold-on privately. "We want to see a self-build movement spread across the country and particularly come to the rescue in rural areas," says Shapps.

But Orme and other self-build experts say other policies contradict this support: "When it outlawed 'garden-grabbing', the government said it was stopping developers building blocks of flats on little old ladies' back gardens," he says. "But a significant minority of self-build plots are in large gardens and they're entirely appropriate. If the coalition was serious about promoting self-build, it would make this an exception."

Orme is also critical of the abolition of house-building targets, which are to be replaced with more power for councils and community groups to decide on schemes for local homes. In some cases, 90% of locals may have to support a proposal before it can go ahead, a level of support currently achieved by very few planning applications.

Other experts share Orme's views. Andy Lloyd of Cumbria Rural Housing Trust wrote to Shapps broadly backing the "localism" concept, but his letter, on the CRHT website, warns: "Unfortunately the suggested condition of gaining 90% community support stops this very good idea in its tracks."

The fear of many, including volume developers, surveyors and planners, is that by devolving decision-making to communities, most plans for homes will be thrown out. Until now, self-builders have been treated benevolently by planners. Before the recession there were 20,000 self-built homes in the UK annually, about 12.5% of the total, compared with 40% in Scandinavia and central Europe. BuildStore, a resource centre, says that one in three new detached houses in the UK in 2009 were self-built, but warns that the sector cannot expand without investment.

"Creating the 'revolution' Grant Shapps has spoken of, requires a significant support framework that involves government, local authorities, mortgage lenders and the construction industry as well as information, education, and support for prospective self-builders themselves," says BuildStore chief executive Raymond Connor.

One major problem is funding. The sector did not expand, as anticipated, when plot prices fell in the downturn. Land, the most expensive element of self-build projects, fell 35% in value in 2008 and another 10% last year, but most self-builders failed to take advantage because they could not negotiate loans.

Many self-builders must juggle paying an existing loan on their current home while they build their next one, so require unusual mortgage products. Some analysts fear that increasing wariness about credit levels will further inhibit lenders from serving the self-build sector, regarded by mainstream finance houses as too complicated.

Ian and Bronwen Lebbon had that problem when they spent 18 months building a timber-framed house at Corwen in Denbighshire. Loan requests to building societies were rebuffed and the one bank that agreed would only lend the full sum up-front at high interest rates. Instead, they opted for a Buildstore mortgage – phased payments were made as elements of the project were completed.

"I knew exactly what target I was working to and what money I would get up-front for the next stage," says Ian, whose project cost £382,000.

Mortgage intelligence service Moneyfacts says there were 35 self-build lenders in pre-credit-crunch early 2007, and 21 today, a modest fall compared with some other niche mortgage sectors. "But they don't advertise rates or products and usually tailor what they offer to specific applicants," says Moneyfacts' Louise Holmes. "No one knows how many loans are actually made."

Now self-builders are waiting to see if the government's proposals come to fruition. If they do, and even if local agreement is forthcoming, there may not be the expansion of self-build that some people anticipate.

"Most self-builders want to build ordinary family homes, then sell-on after a few years," says Orme. "The government wants them to build social housing that used to be provided by professional developers or councils. That's a cop-out by government and is not what self-build is about."


Graham Norwood

The GuardianTramp

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