How new self-build duty will affect councils’ planning strategies
The government has proposed changes to the planning system to boost the number of self- and custom-built homes. However, the new measures could place new burdens on overstretched planning teams.
Industry figures indicate that the UK is behind other Western nations when it comes to promoting new self- or custom-built housing and the new self-build planning guidelines aim to change that.
Figures from the National Custom & Self Build Association (NACSBA) also show that the number of self-build completions in the UK has dropped sharply from a pre-recession peak.
The government, however, is keen to see numbers rise again as a way of helping to ease the country’s chronic housing shortage. Planning minister Brandon Lewis has spoken of the government’s “commitment to double the number of custom-build and self-build homes by 2020”; the NACSBA’s current estimated annual figure for the UK is around 12,500. To achieve this ambitious aim, ministers have recently proposed a series of changes to the planning system.
In 2014, the coalition government launched a consultation entitled Right to Build: supporting custom and self-build – with “custom build” referring to homes built to owners’ specification rather than by the owners themselves.
One of the key measures, a requirement for local planning authorities to keep registers of those who express an interest in self- and custom build for their area, was introduced last March in the Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015. The act places a duty on councils to “have regard to” their register when carrying out their planning responsibilities.
Last month, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published new regulations and draft planning guidance, which comes into force on 1 April, outlining how councils should meet these new responsibilities (Planning, 12 February, page 6). It says authorities should use evidence on local self- and custom-build demand from their housing registers “in developing their local plan” and in calculating their strategic housing market assessments (SHMAs). It also says that the registers “may be a material consideration” in development management decisions.
Further changes have been proposed in the Housing and Planning Bill, including a requirement for councils to provide enough planning permissions for serviced plots for self- and custom builders, complete with access to water, electricity and roads. This must match local demand, as indicated by the registers of interest. A DCLG consultation last month on planned changes to the bill also proposes requiring councils to create registers of small sites, of between one and four plots, that landowners would offer for development, to “make it easier for developers and individuals to identify suitable sites” for self- and custom build.
But the Planning Officers’ Society (POS) fears the new requirements, particularly the provision of serviced plots, could be onerous for stretched local authority planning teams. Mike Kiely, chair of the board at POS, says that self-build housing tends to be low density, typically providing detached homes, and would do little to address the housing shortage. The government’s aim of doubling the rate of self-build housing would only supply about 8 per cent of the roughly 250,000 new-build homes needed each year, Kiely says. “It’s a significant burden for a relatively small contribution.”
But the self-build sector is confident that growing demand justifies the changes. NACSBA chair Michael Holmes says polls suggest that one million people in the UK are actively looking to build their own homes. He believes that, if local authorities promote their registers of interest, the market could double by 2020 and, beyond that, even reach 30,000 to 50,000 homes a year in England alone – about 20 per cent of annual housing need.
Ted Stevens, former NACSBA chair, says local authorities won’t necessarily “need to do much”.
He continued to say:
“There’s a misconception that this means a huge pile of work, but serviced plots can be delivered via the private sector or housing associations. A new policy in a local plan can make it happen.”
Holmes expects the cost of the new administrative burdens taken on by councils to be met by new funding in the next spending review. The DCLG has confirmed that “reasonable costs” of setting up registers of interest will be met by Whitehall.
A number of authorities have been tackling these issues for the past couple of years. To test the Right to Build proposals, the DCLG in 2014 funded 11 ‘vanguard councils’ to promote self-build in their areas. While some have provided serviced plots for sale on council-owned land, others have introduced policies requiring developers to provide such plots on schemes of a certain size.
Simon Thornley, the council’s spatial planning and delivery service manager, says the extent of the burden that the new measures place on councils will depend on how much they wish to promote self-build. They could do the “bare minimum”, he says, adding that setting up a register had not been that difficult for his authority. But he also flags up the potential loss of community infrastructure levy receipts, as self-build plots are exempt from the charge.
The lack of checks on those wishing to sign up to a register concerns some commentators. The guidance states that any European Economic Area citizen aged over 18 seeking to buy a serviced plot for their home is eligible. Authorities can “request additional information from applicants”, but cannot block qualifying individuals who refuse to respond.
Because of this, some question the use of the registers to gauge local demand for self-build. Alex Rogerson, a planning consultant at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, warns that the ease of registration could “create a false impression of demand”, saying authorities should be cautious about using registers to inform SHMAs.
Thornley suggests limiting the time people can remain on the list before having to re-register, adding:
“It has the potential to be ever-growing, with no one ever coming off it.”
Where councils are providing serviced sites on land they own, Holmes says, they could set eligibility tests, such as financial capability and local residency, as long as they are lawful and non-discriminatory.