The Bacon Review of Custom and Self Build – Our contribution to the review

Some of our readers may be aware that MP Richard Bacon, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Self-Build, Custom and Community Housebuilding and Place-Making, has been commissioned by the Government to conduct a review of the custom and self build housing sector, as part of their recently announced Action Plan. The review is due to report in the not too distant future.  Scandinavian Homes have written to Mr Bacon to share our thoughts with him. The paragraphs below are our contribution to the review.

Our Contribution to the Review

We believe that self build is unnecessarily difficult for most people who would love to build their own homes. And as many have said, people who commission their own house to be built tend to want better quality, more energy efficient houses. Planning appears to be the biggest issue.

Our experience is that several of our potential clients have been thwarted by planning refusals, delays, unnecessary and expensive surveys etc. They may well own land themselves (or a family member might), which appears to be appropriate for development, but planning seem to put obstacles in the way. Many are then put off by the challenge and give up.

One of the challenges appears to be that many people who wish to self build don’t want to live in a highly congested area, on a housing estate. They don’t necessarily want to build in the middle of nowhere, but they want to have space to build a sensibly sized house, with space around it. The creation of sites of serviced plots, while a welcome option for some, won’t solve the challenges for many would be self builders. If the density was reduced, with more flexibility over plot size, this might make serviced plots more appealing. 

We also believe that one reason why many ‘developer’ proposals are unpopular and get a lot of resistance locally, is because the density is so high, and houses seem crammed together, retaining little green space. As recent events have shown, people need open spaces for mental and physical health.

Councils should not be penalised for self build – the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charge exemption is excellent news from the perspective of the individual, but 100 self builders would therefore not contribute anything (other than council tax). One site of 100 homes will attract considerable funds, welcomed by cash strapped councils. Therefore we would support CIL on self-builds providing it is reasonable (in the past, prior to the CIL exemption, we are aware of projects that did not go ahead owing to excessive CIL charges). Our perception is that this must pre-dispose some councils to be against self and custom build. 

The current system gives the appearance of being skewed in favour of developers in a number of ways.

1) Government dictated housing targets (rather than decisions based on local needs) are more easily met by large developments than hundreds of individual planning applications;

2) the rules based system (or tick box exercise) makes it hard for planners to resist large schemes and easier to refuse individual applications;

3) when such schemes are refused, the developers often go to appeal and when successful, councils are saddled with the costs which they can ill afford. 

Whatever happened to the presumption in favour of sustainable development? Small villages and towns need younger residents to help them survive and thrive (and support local shops, pubs and other businesses) and we’d like to see a revival of the principle of small numbers of new housing in every location. We know of a village where the only reason the local school, sports club, and village shop survive is because a small new development was built several years ago, meaning the offspring of local people could continue to live there. This should be the norm rather than the exception and custom and self build could be a major contributor to the health of such places. 

We have also written up some information about Housing Fairs in Finland – which adds more input to the requirement for the Bacon Review to report on what happens in other countries regarding self build.   

Building a new home in Scandinavia

In many European countries, rather than having the majority of new housing built on large estates developed on spec by volume housebuilders, it is common to have ‘show sites’, or housing fairs where the manufacturers of houses exhibit example houses. In some places, these show sites are also locations where people can buy plots and commission their own homes. We use the term ‘manufacturers’ because it is quite common in Scandinavia to have houses manufactured offsite and then assembled on the customers’ plot. Such houses might be log or timber panel buildings, but of course there are also houses made from concrete, steel and other materials, built on site.

With self build commonplace in many European countries, this allows people to see various options and then go ahead and order their own bespoke house. This might be based on a standard design but will almost always be customised to suit their requirements. These customisations usually go far beyond being able to choose the colours of the kitchen doors or the tiles on the bathroom floor. With more and more people wanting their homes to suit both current and future needs, such customisations could include having space for home working (and homework!).

In Finland, the Cooperative Finnish Housing Fair was founded in 1966 and now runs annual housing fairs in different cities around the country. A site is selected for development, with part of the site available for manufacturers to build show homes – with the whole site being available to the public to visit. The fair also provides opportunities for interior designers, furniture manufacturers etc. to showcase their work. The site is available to visit for several weeks, and the idea is to let prospective house owners have a good look at what is available, and then perhaps select the house that they want, which they can then arrange to have built on a serviced plot elsewhere on the site.

Finnish Housing Fair – Photo credit J Kainulainen Photography

Some houses that are exhibited are very innovative – from being designed and built by small cooperative groups through to the largest house manufacturers.

When buying a ticket to visit the fair, aspiring owners can select which houses they might want to investigate by manufacturer, by material, by energy rating, by detached house / apartment / semi-detached, and a range of other criteria.

The ongoing success of such housing fairs means that cities may vie with each other to host future events! For example, the housing fair in 2021 is anticipated to bring more than 100,000 trade fair visitors to Lohja – not bad for a country with a relatively small population of just over 5.5 million!

Information about the Housing Fair can be found here – we switched to the Finnish version and used Google Translate to find out more.