Housing and Planning

How to kickstart a self-building revolution

For decades, we have failed to build the homes we need, leading to home ownership slipping out of reach for more and more people. And while the housing crisis stems from numerous policy failures, the main culprit is the planning system.

I’ve been fortunate to live in some of the most beautiful parts of the country, including the New Forest and, now, Devon. And I’ve seen first-hand how our planning system stops people from building homes that are desperately needed, or even modifying existing homes beyond limited permitted development rights.

Yet our planning system’s restrictiveness to new homes is not applied to all types of buildings. A few summers ago, along my commute to work, I noticed a flurry of activity as several agricultural buildings were erected in a matter of weeks. These agricultural buildings were not picturesque stone (or, being Devon, cob and thatch) barns you might see on postcards. They were concrete-and-steel affairs that stood out markedly from the landscape for weeks, until they became a familiar and unremarkable part of my commute.

Our planning system rightly acknowledges that farmers may need new agricultural buildings from time to time and for this reason provides permitted development rights for agricultural buildings. But this leads to the absurdity that if you want to build a dwelling for pigs, you are effectively free to go ahead, but if instead you want to build a dwelling for humans, then you must contend with a labyrinth of bureaucracy to be able to build a home.

My proposal for the Richard Koch Breakthrough Prize aimed to solve this paradox. It proposed a streamlined route for self- or custom-build dwellings, akin to the permitted development rights for agricultural dwellings. Because of our byzantine planning laws, we have an exceptionally low rate of self-builds: in Austria, 80% of homes are new builds and in France, 60%. In the UK it is around 10%. Creating a new route for people to build their own homes in their own communities would unleash a new powerful route to homebuilding.

This would be achieved through three steps. First, communities would design ‘frameworks’ outlining the types of self-build homes they would be willing to accept, which would then become part of their local planning system. Second, any person wanting to build a self-build home which met the framework would only need to notify their local planning authority for a small fee, akin to the notification process for agricultural dwellings. If the property met the local framework, permission would be granted, regardless of previous land use. Third, local planning authorities would have a new obligation to promote self-build frameworks, by helping communities design the framework and helping prospective self-builders build homes to meet these standards.

Being able to build one’s own home is an immensely popular idea. A majority of people in this country would consider building their own home if given the opportunity to do so. It would likely overcome the NIMBYism currently seen towards developer-led housebuilding. As homes would be built incrementally, communities would be able to naturally absorb new homes in a way they cannot with larger developments. Self-build homes are generally built to a high quality, and are more likely to be resourceful in how they use land or building materials. And since the broad stipulations for self-build homes would be designated by the community, they would provide even more certainty for communities who might otherwise oppose new homes.

The frameworks would clearly make the planning process simpler and less risky for self-builders. They would know from the outset whether their property met standards designated by the community they wanted to build in, removing the capriciousness our current planning system can create. The framework would also be open to people looking to modify existing homes, so long as their proposals also fell within it.

Although the frameworks proposed here would be capped at self- and custom-builds, their introduction would create a clear signal to local planning authorities and developers what types of developments communities favour, also making the system more straightforward for developers. More importantly, it would lead to a reduction in land price, as new homes would not be restricted to land that has been granted planning permission.

If our planning system acknowledged that people had a need, and indeed, a right, to build their own homes, as currently the case in countries like Germany, then it would create a new ‘can-do’ approach to homebuilding.

With a new route to self-building, people would be able to bypass our cumbersome planning process and just get on with the job of building the homes they want, where they want to live.

Stephen is a strategy and insight researcher for LiveWest, a housing association in South West England, and has previously worked as a project coordinator in a small charity in Manchester working with Irish Travellers. Stephen holds a first class honours degree in French Studies (University of London Institute in Paris) and a Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Stephen was a finalist in the 2018 Richard Koch Breakthrough Prize.

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