Lots of people smirk about self build, especially snobbier estate agents and developers.
Yet self-builders constructed one in three detached houses in the UK in 2009, they make an industry worth just over £3.5 billion a year according to business consultants AMA, and collectively construct more homes than any single professional developer.
But what is a self-builder? Some are individuals who spend millions on highly customised homes; others, through hybrid entities like Community Land Trusts, sign covenants restricting future sale and tenure to locals paying sub-market prices.
The big fish in the self-build sea is Buildstore, a firm which finds plots, arranges mortgages, trains self-builders and renovators, and operates a discount scheme on materials. Over 80,000 subscribe to its plot-finding database and 25,000 annually visit its National Self Build & Renovation Centre (despite it being in Swindon).
Raymond Connor, Buildstore’s CEO, helps unravel the conundrum of whether self-build is for the worthy or the affluent. “The principle is always the same - that is, individuals take responsibility for the procurement of their own home. But the way it is delivered, promoted and executed, as well as the 'end-user', can vary to suit the circumstances.”
Self-builders are in the news right now. The Conservatives want them to become a rural regeneration force with councils obliged to allocate land to those willing to construct low-cost homes. But will that work? Connor isn’t sure.
“Expanding the self build housing market will require significant expansion and upgrade of the existing support framework that involves government, local authorities, mortgage lenders and the construction industry, as well as information and education, and support for prospective self builders themselves” says Connor.
He is fiercely critical of the system operated now by volume builders and talks of the private homes industry having “a toxic effect on the housing market overall”.
As a result, he says the next government - of whatever colour - should do two things: “Firstly, ensure every local authority sets aside a proportion of land to self builders and amend section 106 agreements to include a clause supplying self build land on new housing developments. Secondly, insist that state-aided banks in particular allocate funding for self build. Without access to funding – the right type of funding - people will not be able to take advantage of any increased opportunity for self build.”
What Connor wants sounds similar to the call – made back in the heady pre-downturn days of 2007 – by Lord Calcutt, whose review of UK housebuilding delivery called on the self-build sector to be guaranteed more plots, tax breaks and planning help to make a “substantially greater contribution” to providing homes.
Connor and Calcutt are certainly calling for more than the Conservatives have so far advocated. At the start of a political era where frugal government spending will be the order of the day, an expanding self-build sector might be just what is required to boost housing supply – if any government has the courage to embrace it.
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