Doing it themselves
Help is at hand for low-income tenants keen to follow the Highland tradition of self-building. Clare Harris reports
Mention self-build and most people think of Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud and the sort of construction we could only dream of. In the Scottish Highlands, though, where building your own home is a time-honoured tradition, one scheme is making self-build more achievable.
The Highland Housing Alliance was formed in 2005 as a company limited by guarantee. Owned and overseen by Highland Council, two housing trusts and five local housing associations - Albyn Housing Society, Cairn, Lochalsh & Skye, Lochaber, and Pentland - the alliance is able to acquire land in the same way as any private developer, but with its public-sector roots it can also help provide the mix of housing each area really needs.
‘Self-build can offer important opportunities for local people to solve their own housing needs within the communities where they want to live,’ sums up Jason MacGilp, chief executive of Cairn Housing Association.
About 25 per cent of each HHA development comes in the form of self-build plots, alongside affordable homes to buy and those available at social rents. To date, HHA has sold 78 plots in 18 developments to local people or small developers in towns and cities across the Highlands, and its success is now being cited by Glasgow Scottish National Party councillor Grant Thoms as he tries to enable more people to build their own homes in the city.
The number of HHA self-build properties won’t make a significant dent in the 11,000-plus waiting list currently held by Highland Council - but as the organisation’s director, Susan Torrance, explains, that’s not necessarily the aim behind making the plots available.
‘We’re assisting people who have a low chance of getting social housing, but who have been priced out of the market,’ she explains. ‘They might have big families and are never going to get a house that suits their needs - but self-build can meet that requirement. It’s about giving people as many options as possible.’
Plots are provided ‘oven ready’: fully serviced and with outline planning consent. Depending on their circumstances, the buyer will pay market rate of about £70,000 or a discounted rate of £49,950, and must have a mortgage in place before the sale can go through.
Build price depends on the size of the house, Ms Torrance says. ‘The lowest we have had was £480 per square metre at our recent development at Tain. It depends how much the buyer relies on the building trade, and how much he can bring in his own contacts, friends or family to help. Self-builders are people who have a bit of get up and go, and they want to know they are getting value for money.’
If buyers don’t build within two years of purchasing the plot, they must sell it back to HHA at the discounted rate - although no buyers have been forced to sell their plots back so far.
If a plot is sold to a small developer, it is on condition that the resulting home goes on the market at an affordable price. This avoids land speculation, and benefits local tradespeople, too.
According to figures from Buildstore, the Livingstone-based self-build finance firm and founding member of the National Self Build Association, self-builds in Scotland have fallen from a peak of 1,800 in 2006, to 1,200 in 2011.
Decline in activity
In the Highlands, the usual average of 700 self-builds a year is now down to about 200, says Ronnie MacRae, director of the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust, one of the organisations that guides and benefits from the work of the HHA.
‘We’ve been lobbying banks over the past two years,’ says Mr MacRae, who sees lack of funding as the main barrier to today’s self-builders. ‘We’ve spoken to lots of them and they all agree that self-build is not high risk, but the finance is still not coming through. I would like to know the reasons for this as much as anyone.’
Raymond Connor, chief executive of Buildstore, agrees. ‘It’s unfortunate, because we know there is more appetite for self-building in Scotland.’
Buildstore figures show that Scotland is the third most popular region for self-building in the UK [behind south east and south west England], and while about 10 per cent of new homes in the country are self-builds, Mr Connor believes that if the number of people who aspire to build their own homes were able to do so, that figure could double. About 3,400 people have searched for land in Scotland in the past six months alone.
What HHA demonstrates is that lenders are more willing to come on board when there is volume; if plots are part of larger developments, and obstacles such as services and planning have already been overcome.
Further advocacy from the Scottish Government would help everyone, Ms Torrance says. ‘The government could be learning a bit more from what we’re doing. Self-build is never going to be large scale, but there are now 40 homes in Tain, where housing demand is huge, that wouldn’t have been there if we had not created plots. Including a self-build plot in every masterplan wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.’
Self-build in the city
In February, Glasgow Scottish National Party councillor Grant Thoms announced proposals for a self-build policy for Scotland’s biggest city, citing the Highland Housing Alliance’s success as an example.
‘What HHA has shown is that you can assist in the development process of self-build,’ says Mr Thoms.
He admits Glasgow lacks the self-build tradition of the Highlands, but points to areas such as Easterhouse, where brownfield sites are unwanted by commercial developers but could be brought back to life by the local community.
‘If we can access sites that have never appealed to the private sector but may appeal to individuals where they could build their own home, that could be one way of overcoming housing shortages in the city,’ he says.
The idea looks set to become part of the Scottish National Party’s proposals for the forthcoming council elections.