This isn’t a blog about the UK’s broken housing system – we all know it does not provide decent and affordable homes for everyone. The negative impacts its creates are as numerous as the reasons for its dysfunction and a quick internet search will return numerous articles detailing the systemic market failure. So with under 45s spending much more on housing than their parents, facing increasing insecurity for less space and longer commutes, something has to change.
This blog is about one of the many bold ideas emerging that may help create a housing system that works…
For many years the concept of self-build housing has been popular on mainland Europe representing up to 60% of all homes built in countries such as Italy, France and Germany whereas the figure in the UK, is much lower, approximately 7%.
However, in recent years there has been an increasing interest in the opportunities presented by self-build in the UK and recent legislation could radically increase the percentage of homes delivered in this way. Right to Build legislation was introduced in England in 2016, and is intended to open up the land market to anyone wanting to build their own home. The legislation is designed to enable individuals or groups of people to build their own homes by placing a duty on local councils to provide enough ‘build-ready’ plots of land, with services already connected. The number of plots available is based on the numbers registering on local ‘Custom and Self Build Demand Registers’.
Progress on creating plots by local authorities, and take up during the three years since April 2016 has been mixed, and it is expected government will review the system shortly. Even though self-build may not lead to volume of building initially hoped for by the government, it does offer local communities the opportunity to develop innovative housing solutions to meet local demand through Cooperatives, cohousing and Community Land Trusts.
Below we explore the example of self-build in Vauban in Frieburg, Germany and two examples of what is, and isn’t working in the UK to date.
Self-build housing in Vauban, Frieburg, Germany
Self-build housing or ‘Baugruppe’ has been actively encouraged within projects like the redevelopment of the Vauban quarter of Frieburg in Germany. Vauban was a brownfield site, formerly home to a French Barracks which was redeveloped by the city of Frieburg as a new housing area. The concept of self-build communities was incorporated into the master plan for the area and played an important role in helping to create the high quality of environmental standards, design and car-free environment that are characteristic of ‘Quartier Vauban’ today. Indeed, the city council actually gave preference to groups of citizens over commercial developers at the site and also fixed the land prices so that commercial developers could not enter into a bidding war with self-build groups. Through this process, not only did residents get exactly the type of house they wanted (within the parameters of the overall planning guidance and site masterplan) but they also began to get to know their future neighbours even before they moved into the area, building a sense of community from the very start. Individual families can also add their own design ideas to the building which gives the neighbourhood area a real sense of identity.
Key features of this approach
- Community decision making and place-shaping: The community were actively involved in designing and shaping their new community, working alongside local architects and builders.
- Support for locally owned businesses:The self-build element of the Vauban initiative actively supported local businesses in the area through the use of local builders, suppliers and architects.
- Using the planning system to support the local economy: House building is a key part of any local authority’s future strategy but is often seen as a response to economic change rather than as a catalyst for supporting economic development. By including self-build, the planning process is actively using the provision of housing to encourage greater diversity and competition in the house building market and support local investment.
- Focus on high environmental quality: One of the distinctive features of the Vauban development was its focus on high environmental quality. The absence of cars in the area and the high proportion of green space make it a very pleasant and safe neighbourhood for people to live in as well as helping to raise overall environmental standards of house building in an area.
Self-build communities in the UK
A successful UK example of creating a self-build community has been Graven Hill Self Build in Bicester– In 2014 Cherwell District Council purchased land from the MOD, and have provided space for the development of up to 1900 self-build homes including kit houses and community self-build schemes. Promoted as the largest self-build community in the UK, the site includes a variety of different house types including bungalows, apartment blocks, detached and semi-detached properties as well as a range of tenure types.
However, the success of Graven Hill may be due to its location in an affluent part of Oxfordshire with relatively high house prices, within easy commuting distance of London. The experience in Oxfordshire contrasts starkly with Middlesbrough’s self-build experiment, the Urban Pioneers’ scheme at Middlehaven. Focused on an area of former industrial land north of Middlesbrough, which the Council have been redeveloping and regenerating over a number of years; and which has been successful in providing business space for new digital and creative companies to grow. The Urban Pioneers’ scheme aimed to provide people with the chance to create their own homes and communities on the mixed-use regeneration site, but unlike Graven Hill market forces worked against the scheme as house prices are low in Middlesboutough and finance was hard to obtain to build the plots. As a result the first nine houses on the scheme were developed for a local housing association.
So while Self-build may offer many opportunities to help address the UK’s dysfunctional housing system, especially by making it easier for cooperatives, cohousing and Community Land Trusts to obtain land and build. In any review of the system the government should be mindful that a one-size-fits-all approach may exacerbate the property divide and should ensure that power is localised so decision making can reflect local circumstances, coupled with a joined-up policy approach that tackles regional economic disparity.