Raising the roof
The government is convinced encouraging people to build their own homes can help solve the housing crisis, but what exactly might that involve? Gavriel Hollander reports from Almere in Holland, home to Europe’s biggest self-build scheme to date
In the BBC’s truer than life comedy series The Thick of It, a sneering journalist warns spinmeister general Malcolm Tucker about the political pitfalls of ‘wheeling out the celebrities’ to front policy initiatives.
‘What’s next?’ asks the mischievous hack. ‘Ant and Dec as the new [expletive deleted] litter czars? That’s when you know you’re 20 points behind in the polls.’
Grant Shapps presumably isn’t a fan of the show given that front and centre of the housing minister’s plans to make the UK a nation of do-it-yourself builders is none other than Kevin McCloud - presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Mr McCloud is the figurehead of a push to increase dramatically the number of homes delivered through self-build.
There is certainly room for improvement if you look at the figures. In the UK last year, fewer than 14,000 new homes were classified as self-built. That’s the lowest total in western Europe. Mr Shapps wants to see the number double over the next 10 years. That would make some dent in the predicted 250,000 homes needed annually in the country. It is a grand design in the truest possible sense, but there is a precedent for such vaulting ambition not a million miles away.
The Dutch city of Almere is a new town of about 194,000 people around half an hour from Amsterdam. Built in the 1970s on land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee, it is Holland’s newest city and, since 2006, the home of the most ambitious large-scale self-build project in Europe. In 2006, work began on a section of the city that will eventually see 3,000 self-build homes completed. And last month, Mr Shapps, with Mr McCloud adding the celebrity glamour, led a trade delegation to Almere to drink in the experience.
With only around a third of the homes planned for the self-build section of the city actually complete, Almere is a strange place to visit. At times, it resembles the world’s biggest building site, while some parts feel like a Brobdingnagian child’s Lego set. One wooden house looks more like an over-sized sauna than a family home.
While the designs for some of the homes raised a few eyebrows among the UK delegates - including representatives from councils, housing associations and even developers - the concept behind Almere’s project is less far-fetched. What, then, has been the secret to Almere’s success - and what is the chance of a celebrity-led initiative leading to a boom in self-builders in the UK?
As a starting point, Almere has made huge swathes of its own land available, at a discount, to families, individuals or groups who want to build their own homes. The discounts are generally around 20 per cent, meaning savings of up to €50,000 for some self-builders. In return, the city has made €187 million that it is reinvesting in roads and other infrastructure for its pioneering new citizens.
As Mr Shapps has identified, it’s the kind of deal that seems to fit perfectly with his boss’s big society agenda. Therefore, it’s difficult to see why self-build has been such a slow starter in the UK. One of the problems, it would seem, is perception.
‘In its true sense, it [self-build] used to be the preserve of the middle classes,’ says David Gannicott, the current director of partnerships at Pinnacle Regeneration Group, who oversaw several small-scale self-build projects in south east London in his previous role as director at London & Quadrant.
‘The architect or the solicitor would take a couple of years off to build their funky designs; they had time on their hands and independent means.’
Mr Gannicott, a self-confessed ‘big fan’ of self-build, acknowledges that the image he describes is not the one that tallies with the government’s latest efforts to make us do it ourselves. The initiative launched by Mr McCloud and Mr Shapps on their Dutch sojourn involves a £30 million revolving fund to assist self-build projects. The minister has also suggested that he would like to see an amnesty on the community infrastructure levy being applied to self-build homes.
Meanwhile, the Homes and Communities Agency has identified five pieces of land to hand over as part of a government-backed self-build trial, with the as-yet unidentified sites understood to be in lower value areas.
As a suite of incentivising measures, these are not the kind designed to encourage the well-meaning local bank manager with a few thousand quid burning a hole in his pocket and lingering fantasies about Felicity Kendal and the Good Life. Much like the philosophy behind Almere, the policy is more about helping people on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum - and building communities at the same time.
Mr Shapps acknowledges that the self-build revolution might have to start small. ‘I’m not sure we’re going to follow them in every detail,’ he says of the Almere comparison and admits that the scale of the project would be difficult - if not impossible - to replicate in the UK. Indeed the HCA pilot sites, due to be revealed later this summer, will only have a capacity of around 80 homes.
But Mr Gannicott is one of many UK observers who identifies a more fundamental problem facing would-be self-builders.
‘Grant Shapps might have visions that we will have self-builders all over the country but the planning system will slow it down; it all depends on how keen local authorities are.’
In Almere, cutting back on planning regulations was one of the first tasks facing the architects of the scheme.
‘That’s what we changed,’ explains Jacqueline Tellina, district manager of self-build projects for the city. ‘When I came here [in 2006] there was a lot of paperwork done by civil servants. It was given to people as if it was essential but it [planning] could be done with a few simple lines.
‘It’s not so much about changing the rules or making a different system; it’s more to do with changing the culture of working.’
Planning regulations for Almere’s self-builders are, to say the least, minimalist. The homes need to be under a certain height, be built within a designated plot and have their own parking space. And that’s about it.
But it’s not just the slightly more lenient approach to planning that is different in Holland. The role of social landlords is much reduced too. Although the shared ownership homes in Almere are delivered through a social landlord, most plots are built out by owner-occupiers, whether individually or in groups. Back home, housing associations are keen to take a much fuller role.
Plus Dane is already working on two projects in Liverpool using the self-build model. Although the tenure mix is yet to be decided, it is thought there will be a good proportion of shared ownership or affordable rent homes.
Claire Griffiths, managing director of regeneration at Plus Dane, was on the Almere visit and sees self-build as a way of giving tenants more ownership of their homes.
‘Ideally we’d like to have some form of shared ownership as it would involve a group [of tenants] that we would like to see have a stake in it.’
Gary Fulford, chief executive of Walsall Housing Group and another Almere delegate, says his organisation also plans to explore the self-build option. But he warns that he would ‘need to see the detail’ before committing - detail that is so far slightly lacking from the minister’s proposals.
We might not be as far down the road as the Dutch, but momentum is building. Ted Stevens, chair of the National Self-Build Association, says the Almere visit has sparked a renewed wave of interest.
‘We’ve had a string of meetings with social landlords and they are getting excited about it. Their funding is getting squeezed and they might look at it as a very attractive model as they can effectively fund development through the contribution of self-builders.’
Mr Stevens claims that ‘a lot of the big boys’ of the housing association and house builder world are examining various ways of implementing self-build. Those thought to be considering self-build projects include Family Mosaic, Home Group and Places for People. But so far, it’s the smaller projects that have met with success.
In Toxteth, Liverpool, Cosmopolitan Housing Association runs a Habitat for Humanity scheme that will eventually see 32 homes built for low-income families. The self-builders work with contractors by putting in 500 hours of ‘sweat equity’ in lieu of a deposit.
‘The whole self-build process is brilliant in that it means we are building sustainable communities,’ says Liza Parry, executive director of Habitat for Humanity. ‘The people who are moving into the houses are getting to know each other because they are actually building homes together.’
The scheme is exactly what the new fund is aimed at - and Ms Parry says her organisation would consider submitting a bid for a share. But she warns that it is ‘a drop in the ocean’. The problem seems to be that ambition alone is not enough if there isn’t the money or - more importantly - the land available to make self-build a viable option on a scale a little bigger than Ms Parry can deliver.
It’s a problem that makes it hard to identify where our version of an Almere might come from. And it’s a problem that no amount of celebrity endorsement is going to fix.
Who came along on the trip?
- Plus Dane
- Walsall Housing Group
- Cherwell Council
- Teignbridge Council
- Fairgrove Homes
- Green Square Group
- Igloo Regeneration
- Lovell Partnership
- Taylor Wimpey
- Urban Self Build
- Urban Splash
- Travis Perkins
What is self-build?
The sometimes weird and wonderful self-build projects of Almere may bear little resemblance to the kind of homes that could be built in the UK if the new incentives package work.
While self-build sounds like a simple concept, as Ted Stevens of the National Self-Build Association says, ‘there are 50 ways to skin a cat’.
The houses in Almere - and many of the smaller self-build projects that have been completed over the years in the UK - are either owned outright or as part of shared ownership deals by individuals or groups of self-builders.
The owner usually gets money off the price of land by agreeing to include ‘sweat equity’.
However, the principles of self-build could be extended to include affordable rent properties.
Cherwell Council in Oxfordshire is in the midst of developing a 250-home self-build site, with around half of the homes likely to be available for affordable rent. Tenants would ‘self-finish’ the homes before moving in, which would involve them designing and fitting some of the homes’ interior fittings. In return, tenants would receive a reduction in rent.
Calvin Bell, director of development at Cherwell Council, says the council is likely to bid for some of the £30 million announced by the government to back up its own local fund for the project.
‘As a result of the Almere experience we are thinking about whether it’s possible to do it on a much grander scale,’ adds Mr Bell.