Let’s have more self-build housing – and quick
These days, politics is a gloomy business. Politicians talk of endless austerity and squeezed middles. The general public despair of the main parties. Unfortunately, this pessimism is often justified. Consider housing. The low level of housing (last year we started construction of just 100,000 homes) drives up prices and means that the average age of the first time buyer is now 38. Home ownership is sliding alarmingly, as Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy crumbles. Despite wishful thinking, net migration accounts for only 75,000 homes out of a widely accepted minimum of 250,000 a year just to stand still. We need solutions.
But the debate in the last round of planning reform was bleak. One side hurled abuse about desecrating England’s green and pleasant land. The other talked of selfish and nihilistic NIMBYs.
Those arguing for more homes point out that we have ‘developed’ only 9% of England. The share of England ‘concreted over’ is just 2.4%. Even 100,000 more homes more a year on green field sites builds on an extra 0.004% of England a year. Surely this is worth doing to avert a collapse in family life as even renting family homes becomes unaffordable?
But the CPRE and others know that people are rightly afraid of new homes. Local people feel relatively powerless about the quality and location of new homes in their area. They fear the soulless and unattractive boxy housing estates that go up around our towns and villages. They hear talk of fighting the NIMBYs to boost GDP figures. Such language scares people who worked hard to buy a nice house in a nice area, and fear the Treasury’s bean-counters will trash their local community.
But there are solutions that should be acceptable to the majority on both sides. In many countries and places with population densities similar to England a majority of new homes are custom designed or ‘self built’. Individually designed and attractive new homes are much more common. Unsurprisingly, new homes are much less bitterly contested.
Indeed, using the neighbourhood plan mechanism this government has successfully created, we could sweep away pointless regulation in favour of local people’s discretion. A key issue in planning is that most of England’s more beautiful housing is literally illegal to build. Mews housing falls foul of rules on being overlooked. If you have more than four floors in a beautiful townhouse you need a lift. Thatched cottages are too low density and not zero carbon standard. This is all madness.
After the 1st April an army of planning inspectors will pave the way for waves of speculative development across the South of England. This is not just the alarmism of the CPRE but the view of independent property consultants. This approach was tried and totally failed both politically and practically in the 1980s. The number of new homes rose by just a third in a housing boom. It forced a rare u-turn from a Thatcher government.
Instead of repeating past failures another approach should be taken. Councils failing to build should have to procure land for self-build development for local people, particularly those in nearby suburbs or villages. Let local people decide what rules should govern what new homes should look like instead of the current red tape. Create a new waiting list for this land and a huge new pressure group for more and better quality development springs into existence. Make this about bringing families together, and let people pass land on to their children or close family.
This is in some ways a return to the best of the past. Before 1947 self-build housing was much more common. From village worker cottages to Bath Royal Crescent, self-build homes were how much of our most attractive homes were created. Our current system is the result of the 1945 dream of every home planned, built and owned by the council. Unsurprisingly, it has turned out to be a nightmare.
Too radical, perhaps? There is a type of civil servant who even as the ship sinks argues we need more testing to see if lifeboats are a good idea. Did I mention this system of forcing through housing by planning inspectors meant housing barely rose 33% before Thatcher backed down? Ukip will have a field day if the current plans go through. The Coalition is running out of time to boost growth, fix the housing crisis and avert a crisis in the shires and back benches. Self-build homes for local people, and controlled by local people, is a solution to all three. And it could be as big a political winner and boost to home ownership for the Tories now as Right to Buy was in the 1980s.