Building a House or a Home? – The UK Needs to Decide

The UK, we are constantly being told, is in the middle of a housing crisis. In some cities it’s worse than others with local councils making pledges to build thousands of affordable homes all over the place. A House of Commons report from March 2020 estimated a need for 345,000 new homes per year, a figure not reached in the previous year despite 2019 being the strongest year for house building since the financial crash of 2008. But with an ever increasing rate of house-building occurring – 2018/19 was up 9% on the previous year – who wants to buy them? The percentage of UK homeowners has gone down by 10% over the last decade and the buying power of young adults is diminishing. As property prices increase at astronomical rates of over 250% in some areas, wages for young adults have increased by a meagre 19% causing a drop in interest and of trust in the nation’s housing market by 25-34 year olds. The UK is focussed on building houses for a generation that won’t be able to afford them and doesn’t necessarily want them. The high deposits needed for a mortgage are another reason for decreasing home ownership, even when the payments themselves amount to savings of thousands of pounds compared to rent, even in London. Couple this with a host of other factors such as confusing and constricting planning laws and it’s no wonder The UK is falling behind the rest of the world. Across the English Channel in France the number of homeowners is steadily increasing. Germany is seeing the same trend and it’s not all to do with who’s buying or building them. 

It’s about how. 

In the UK building your own home is not something we generally consider. Only 10% of homes in the UK are self-builds. Instead we have large estates of homogeneous housing drawn up by large developers which people are then expected to buy – straight from the shop floor as it were. This is not the case elsewhere. 

In the rest of Europe, self-builds account for an average 50% of housing with Austria topping it at 80%. In the USA it’s 45%. These are not necessarily houses that people have built with their own two hands, but they have been involved from the very beginning in the design, functionality and development of their home. In many European countries, this is actively encouraged with the introduction of Serviced Plots in areas of towns and cities.  One such example city is the Netherlands’ fifth largest city Almere, which recently gave up a huge zone of land exclusively for around 3000 self-build homes. Serviced Plots are areas of land that are connected to a central infrastructure; water system, sewage system and an energy grid, but other than that, they are undeveloped. Plots are bought and developed by those wanting to live there with the help of consultants and because the buyers are involved from the beginning, the home they build is exactly as they would like it to be in regards to space-usage, energy-usage and design and is often subsidised by the local government to some extent. As well as government subsidies help and support is always available from organisations like banks because this method of building is key to their economies and the social health of the populace. The development is usually done by small-to-middle sized, often family run local developers with close ties to the local community and council which in most cases ensures a mutual trust about what goes up in the area. These homes also often use green energy, have lower waste from the construction and because many opt to have gardens, more biodiverse than if that plot were a field.  Sounds great right?

So why can’t we do this in the UK? Even if it’s not for everybody it sounds like a great option to have. The UK’s National Self-Build Association cites the “availability of land” as the main obstacle to this type of housing in the UK. The Joseph Rountree foundation and the DCLG Select Committee back this up saying the population density in Britain is higher than places in Europe. But both Belgium and the Netherlands – two countries with a tradition of self-builds – have a higher number of people per km². A more likely reason is the difference in rights allowed to a landowner.

In European countries like Germany, it is a constitutional right to develop land that you own and the Americans of course have similar things written into their constitution. In the UK however no such constitution exists and the current planning laws make it extremely difficult to develop on land, even when you own it (as explained by Mark Brinkley who literally wrote the book on it). In most cases only certain types of buildings are allowed – named “permitted developments” – and even these can be extremely hard to acquire permission for or even understand. This is in part, down to the method of applying for permissions. In the UK, an application can be put in for “permissions” with a much lower level of planning and thought than you can elsewhere in Europe. In many EU countries for example a Building Regulation Application is applied for, which ensures the proposed building fits with the character, local energy goals and any other criteria the government and more importantly local councils have set for new builds. Because the rules about what can be built and what can’t are so clear, proposed buildings must be thoroughly planned and designed before the development is even OK’d. This ensures everyone knows what they’re getting into, from developers and homeowners to the locals and soon-to-be-neighbours. Couple this with a society that encourages discussion between neighbors in order to settle development disputes instead of getting the council involved everytime and you have a society more geared towards mindful development instead of mindless devolution. 

NIMBYism (or Not In My Back Yard) is rife in the UK. With large-scale developers constantly acquiring contracts for large-scale housing estates it’s hardly surprising the English jump everytime they see a crane or a rubble remover. Once again, because so much can change after the initial permission is given in the UK , people are rightly paranoid about what is being built or could be built on land “in their back yards”. The level of permissions also means that once permission is granted for one kind of development, the land is often sold on again at a much higher price due to the granted permissions and the cycle begins again. Meanwhile local councils have little say over what happens on this land. With only policy documents to hand not regulatory documents, they can do little more than try and influence the path of development. By the time the land is developed what started as a proposed quaint shopping arcade could be a high-rise of student accommodation. This may not end up being true but the paranoia of this happening is in the mindset of the British neighbor, precisely because it has happened elsewhere. By giving local councils little-to-no power over proposed developments and encouraging the contracting of larger developers, the government make it increasingly difficult to oppose and change land use development once it’s in motion. Plus why give some land over to a group of 30 people wanting to build homes when you can falsely claim you will build 200 “affordable homes” on the same land, before saying none of them are affordable and that if they are to be affordable, the taxpayer needs to “contribute” out of their own pocket, pocketing a tidy profit for yourself. I’m looking at you Galliford Try.

This kind of corrupt development is rife in the UK and unless regulation surrounding the ability to own and develop land is changed, it won’t change. 

The UK has a reputation for having the smallest and the densest housing in Europe. It also has the most capitalist and commercialised housing market. These two things are not a coincidence. In the UK there is a tendency to equate development with concreting over the countryside, when in fact residential areas where people self-build tend to be greener and more biodiverse. People don’t want to live in a concrete jungle, they want to live in what makes them happy. And all that stands between the UK and happiness is the freedom of choice. [Here are some examples of self-build housing on a range of budgets]

Young adults stand at the heart of this issue. In the 1990’s 65% of 25-34 year olds with a  middling income owned a home. Now that number stands at 27% and it’s constantly decreasing. Studies by Santander show this isn’t due to the rate of mortgages, it’s mostly down to not having enough savings to pay for the deposit. In fact in London, the average rent is £289 more a month than a mortgage would be on a comparable home. That would be a saving of £3,500 a year if you were allowed to buy that house rather than just rent it. In areas of the UK without such ridiculous house prices the savings are lower, but they’re still savings. The amount needed for a deposit however is much more bank-breaking. In the last 20 years, the proportion of young adults that would need to spend over 6 months income for a 10% deposit has risen from 33% to 78% and isn’t decreasing. These sort of numbers show how disenfranchised with the housing market young people in the UK are becoming, but with no real alternative to renting or buying already-built-homes nothing is likely to change. 

Some steps are being made in the right direction. The relaunch of England’s Homes and Communities Agency as Homes England in 2018 has given new and vital support to those looking to build themselves a home as well as financial help for new home-buyers in general. Working with them are a range of different local grassroots groups looking to change policy around land-use and development so that more people today and generations of tomorrow can have the choice to build a home rather than buying a house. One such group is the Bristol Housing Festival, which has helped bring together like-minded individuals and people of great knowledge on self-building such as TV’s Charlie luxton and Richard Bacon MP to talk and raise awareness of just how easy it can be; the latter being keen to create “a world where making the choice to build your own house, is a perfectly normal thing to do”. By holding expos which show off the newest technology and up-to-date prefabricated housing groups such as BHF are slowly but surely building a base of people asking, “so, why can’t I build my own home?”. 

The real answer is because current laws won’t easily let you, if you live within the UK. But by raising awareness of the Right to build your own home and keeping an eye on advancements in the field we can hopefully someday, with the help of outspoken individuals and groups, get these restrictive laws changed to better reflect the needs of the nation. We need an end to the laughable “affordable housing” push that our government is on, which is little more than cronyism and pure profiteering. Local MPs can be questioned if housing developments are going up in your area, awareness can be raised. In a recent poll by Ipsos MORI nearly 30% of British adults showed an interest in building their own home compared to buying, with a further 1 in 7 saying they’d like to do or have done more research into self-building their home.

We may not have the answer just yet, but the writing is on the wall.

[To give you an example of what’s possible, here are some examples of self-built housing in the UK on a range of budgets].

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