Ever wondered what a society where most homes are self-built might look like? In the final part of his series, Charlie shares his vision and explains why it could, and should, revolutionise our whole attitude towards where we live.
In this country we are facing a housing crisis, with the number of houses built a year estimated at about 100,000-150,000 too few, and this has been the case for decades. Too few houses is pushing up prices and creating an almost generational exclusion from house ownership. We also have a crisis in the quality of new houses. A recent survey by NaCSBA (National Custom & Self Build Association) and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) stated that 74% of us would not buy a house built in the last 10 years. In a society that defines itself by new things – phones, clothes, cars – the fact that so few of us want a new house is a crushing indictment of the state of our housing industry.
Step in self-builders, whom I believe can help save Britain from this crisis. However, at present, only 10-12% of homes are self-built in the UK – only 5% in England – whereas the European average is approximately 50% — that’s 10 times more.
In this mutant housing system of ours, eight large developers build around 60% of our new homes. In the 1980s this figure was 40%. The power and wealth generated by building homes has been focused into fewer and fewer hands, and a consolidation which is bad for competition, quality and quantity.
One of the key issues is the collective failure of a planning system which is meant to represent what we as a society want, and since at least the 1960s, there has been a growing opposition to building/development. This anti-build rhetoric was embraced by almost all but with consequences foreseen by few.
Perhaps one of the most damaging of these consequences has been a transition of planning departments from proactively ‘planning’ development to being almost solely focused on development control. The idea that we could somehow stop new housing on greenfield sites, especially with a growing, changing population, now looks naïve. However, decades of planning policies have tried to do just that, making it harder to obtain land zoned for development to the point where fewer new homes are being built despite soaring demand. It now seems that across most of the country the only way to get planning permission for a new house on a greenfield site is to be a huge company with an army of well-paid lawyers who can outmanoeuvre fund-ravaged planning departments.
Another unexpected consequence of focusing so much new build into a few companies is a strangulation of the building technologies sector. We live in a country of 64million with a proud heritage of invention and manufacturing, but bar a few notable exceptions nearly all the good new low-energy building technology comes from the continent. Interestingly a disproportionate amount of it comes from Austria, a country with a population of 8.4million but a self-build rate of 80-90% — coincidence?
The eight big developers responsible for so much of our new housing are risk adverse when it comes to new technology. When they are battling with a volatile housing market and the challenges of the planning system they’re not interested in the risk of using innovative technologies with all the potential liability that brings. Self-builders on the other hand are risk takers and love trying new technology and ideas, but with so few of them, many new innovations and technologies wither on the vine and force us to look abroad for the best and latest ideas.
I have spent quite some time trying to work out why we have become so anti-building. There is now so little benefit for communities where new homebuilding occurs, it is no wonder few of us want it. Congestion, road closures, slower broadband speed, stretched health and education services, the list goes on.
Now with the ‘big eight’, most of the building work is done by large-scale contractors to match the size of the developers and, beyond the million an acre given to the landowner, the rest of the money disappears down the motorway with the army of white vans at the end of a day’s work. What’s more, the big housebuilders generate around double the profits of their European counterparts. This money is not used to make better homes or spent in the locations where the houses are built; it goes to the shareholders, pension funds and company owners making the wealthy, wealthier.
The balance has tipped beyond being an equitable transaction to being totally one-sided, and the result is that very few people want large-scale housebuilding anywhere near them. This may sound far-fetched. Are we really weighing the pros and cons to draw complex conclusions about fairness and housebuilding? Quite possibly, yes.
If the efficiency and scale of the ‘big eight’ is a fundamental problem to the acceptance of local development, as I suspect it is, then self-build could be the antidote. Self-builders are inherently more inefficient than developers due to a lack of economies of scale and experience, however self-built homes are bigger and more sustainable — no surprise because if you’re building your own home you want to make sure it’s bigger, better and with smaller bills. If you also consider that the average person moves every seven years, and the average self-builder every 20, they invest not only financially but emotionally into the local community.
Many of our most beautiful villages and towns were built one house at a time, an additive process that has resulted in a rich variation of style and scale. Quite how we think we can ever maintain or recreate this effect by getting a few housebuilders to drop big blocks of homes from the drawing board of a second-rate designer I will never know. Self-build however can reintroduce this additive development and I believe result in better place-making.
Changing a piece of land from agricultural to residential increases its value by around 100 times. Given that the average self-builder spends more per plot than the big developers, we don’t need a Marxist collectivisation of building land to make a self-build revolution happen, just a few tweaks to the planning process.
If more people gained from the positive financial effects of decentralised housebuilding then resistance to new housing (NIMBY-ism by another name) would reduce. If new houses in your local area meant more money invested in the local economy, with the wealth it creates shared more evenly, then more people would support it.
I have no doubt that new housing will always be divisive, but the pill would be significantly sweeter if it created and sustained more local jobs and businesses. People are incredibly rational, and if housebuilding spread wealth right through the economy rather than focusing it at the very top, more would embrace it. And by God we need a lot more people to embrace it because we now have a cross-party political consensus to build a lot more houses.
We have entered a ‘how big is my building target’ competition in the run up to May’s election and 250,000 a year seems the kind of level it will be, but how are we going to achieve this? Will it be through a ‘business as usual’ approach by getting the big developers to build more tiny houses that most of us don’t want? I worry that it may and in doing so, reward the big developers despite their failure to deliver the quality housing that we deserve.
A big part of this building boom is to help drive growth in the economy, however it’s more likely to create poor-quality houses, debt, and fail to capitalise on its potential to stimulate the economy. I believe self-build can save us from this.
I may sound like a dreamer, an idealist; how could self-builders possibly build enough houses? Surely you need established housebuilders to create well-planned housing?
For better or worse, Margaret Thatcher stoked the capitalist in all of us and created a nation of homeowners. Now, George Osborne and his friends have the potential to make us a nation of housebuilders and in doing so shake up the inward-looking, greedy housebuilding sector and save us from another botched political scheme.