Self-build Housing

Part of Health and Social Care – in the House of Commons at 5:52 pm on 13th May 2019.

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Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:52 pm, 13th May 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis not only on securing this debate, which is customary, but on a really engaging, thoughtful and cogently argued speech. Her enthusiasm for self-build—notwithstanding her own tortured experience—shines through, and she is a great champion for it.

This debate comes on the back of last week’s National Custom and Self Build Week, in which I participated wholeheartedly, appearing on stage with the great Kevin McCloud at the ExCeL, in front of an audience of eager self-builders—a small number of the 93,000 people who I gather were due to go through that exhibition over a number of days. I have also visited the legendary Graven Hill in my hon. Friend’s constituency and seen for myself the site, which, as she quite rightly says, is the largest self and custom build site in Europe—I am not sure about the world. Graven Hill has been the subject of the series “The Street”, which is gripping us all. My favourite is the black one, which is built out of packing cases. It is a remarkable achievement.

As my hon. Friend quite rightly says, Graven Hill has an effervescence to it. To me, it seems like a kind of latter day Portmeirion. I have no doubt that, in time, it will become a conservation area—not least for the sheer variety and enthusiasm of the architecture, with a Cotswold cottage next to a Swiss chalet next to a house that looks like a stealth bomber next to a glass box. The variety of homes chosen by the occupants is extraordinary, as is the strong sense of community and ownership that is immediately apparent among the people there.

I know that, as a self-builder herself, my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm spreads far and wide in her constituency and has been noted by many people who live under her supervision. Like her, I have lived with the experience. When I was a small child, my parents built their own home—in the early 1970s, when it was a revolutionary thing to do. They bought a big old Victorian house, with a couple of other families, demolished it, and built a terrace of three houses that still stand today. We often visit and look back with fond memories, not least because my parents also had the Kevin McCloud moment that is in every “Grand Designs” programme where, two thirds of the way through, there is the conversation about money. With my parents, that conversation happened at the end of the build, and we moved in without stairs. For the first few months, as a five-year-old—or whatever I was—I would climb three ladders to get to bed. I am sure that the EU working at height directive would have something to say about that now, but in those days it was de rigueur.

That personal experience is translating into personal support for this mission, but also, happily, into Government support. I speak regularly to Members who are enthusiastic, such as my hon. Friend Mr Bacon, whom we should mention in this regard, and to sector representatives. They highlight, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, the structural barriers that can inhibit self and custom build, such as access to land, finance and navigating the planning system.

However, as result of this Government’s interventions, there has been some progress. We have brought forward, as my hon. Friend said, the “right to build” legislation, inspired by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, which requires local authorities to hold a register of people seeking to build or commission their own home locally. I will follow up with Bambos Charalambous the problem that his constituent is having in accessing that register. We have committed over £30 million to English authorities to meet their statutory duties to permission sufficient land to meet the demand on their registers within three years. We have published national planning guidance, in support of the legislation, and expect to update it to help local authorities with implementation later this year. I am encouraged that the demand is there, with authorities reporting about 42,000 people now signed up to the registers, indicating an increase of 133% in the past three years. We will continue to work with local authorities to ensure that the legislation is as effective as possible. However, we are not complacent. If the legislation is not having the impact we seek, we will look to reinforce it.

We have worked with the industry to identify barriers to the growth of the sector in England, and it has identified access to finance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly said—both developer finance and mortgage finance. The £4.5 billion home building fund launched in October 2016 offers £1 billion in short-term loan finance targeted to self and custom builders, innovators, and small and medium-sized enterprises. In July, a Homes England programme to deliver the community housing fund outside London was launched, with £163 million available up to 2019-20 to support community-led groups bringing forward local affordable housing schemes. We expect a similar programme for London to be announced shortly by the Greater London Assembly.

We have worked with major lenders to ensure that mortgages are available. For example, challenger bank Virgin Money has joined the market, launching new products for custom-build projects recently. As the self and custom build sector consolidates and mainstreams, we anticipate that the market will move into this space and provide new financial products.

The self and custom build sector has welcomed our ongoing and wide-ranging reforms to the planning system, including the new national planning policy framework. These reforms will help to reduce the time that self and custom builders have to spend on appeals, saving money and resources. The new permission in principle, which promises to streamline planning on smaller sites for builders and developers, has also been welcomed. We know there is more to do, such as addressing concerns around capacity in some local authorities. Later this year, the Ministry will be publishing a Green Paper on accelerated planning to discuss how greater capacity, capability and performance improvements can accelerate the planning process.

Hon. Members may well ask why this Government want self and custom builders to build more homes. Last year, we delivered 222,000 new homes—the highest number in a decade, up 2% on the previous year. Since 2010, we have delivered more than 1 million new homes, and we are determined to get to 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the next decade. For too long, we have been overly reliant on a small group of large developers. Lack of diversity and competition has not been good for innovation and productivity, nor for consumer choice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly said, new homes that fall short in terms of quality and character, and that lack a sense of place and belonging in the area, seem ubiquitous.

We now have the opportunity to change things. Self and custom house building is much more common in all developed countries except the United Kingdom, and England sadly lags behind the rest of the UK. If we could increase annual levels of custom and self-build, which were about 10,000 homes in 2015, to levels comparable to the closest overseas country—Holland—we would deliver 30,000 to 40,000 homes annually. Any additional capacity in house building will relieve pressure on the market and other services. Self and custom builders have a vital role to play in delivering new homes that are welcomed in their communities, rather than resisted, and built to last.

We know that a wide cross-section of people are looking to build their own home, and our aim is to make it easier to access self and custom build opportunities. We are working closely with the National Custom and Self Build Association to resolve the structural barriers to self and custom build that it has identified. Like many Members, I want to see more affordable, accessible and innovative self and custom build schemes. I want to see inspiring schemes such as the Nelson project in Plymouth for veterans, and community-owned and focused projects such as the Rural Urban Synthesis Society—RUSS—in Lewisham.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge, playing their part to make custom and self-build part of the solution to our national housing crisis. Councils such as Cherwell, Teignbridge and Shropshire continue to lead the way with their ongoing commitment to custom and self-build. I want to see diverse custom building across the sector, spanning in-fill, small sites and large-scale projects on ex-public sector land such as at Graven Hill. The Right to Build Task Force is working with a number of authorities to bring forward custom and self-build on larger sites—for example, at Aylesbury Woodlands and Tresham Garden Village.

An issue that I have identified, which my hon. Friend will know well, is that local authorities often adopt custom and self-build at volume and scale because one councillor happens to be interested. That is certainly the case at Cherwell, where the visionary leader decided that the council would embrace this and, as a result, has produced a celebrated estate. At the moment, it has not been systemised—it is not something that civic leaders naturally embrace—and one challenge for me is to get in among those civic leaders and sell this as part of the housing mix in their areas.

I recognise that there is still some way to go to mainstream self and custom building as a housing option in this country. We can make the progress necessary only by demonstrating that self and custom build can be affordable. I was pleased to attend Grand Designs Live last week and have the opportunity to meet a number of people. It was a great event, and the message that came across loud and clear was that self and custom projects can be built on modest budgets by hard-working individuals and groups working in collaboration. These builds are as much delivered with passion and energy as with materials and finance.

We should also be designing for our changing and ageing society, ensuring that homes are accessible and fit for people of all ages, so that we build and maintain vibrant mixed communities that stand the test of time. That is certainly the case in Graven Hill, where, as my hon. Friend recognised, there is an immediate sense of ownership and community. There is something life-affirming about designing and building your own home. It is about wanting to build something bespoke and individual, with character, that will be high-quality, accessible and enduring.

I want to finish by paying tribute to the National Custom and Self Build Association, which continues to provide leadership, expertise and experience to overcome sectoral barriers and challenges, and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and the Right to Build Task Force, who have done sterling work in banging the drum for custom and self-build, helping authorities and community groups to bring forward large affordable custom and self-build projects and demonstrating that that is possible.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury that custom and self-build can and should be a mainstream housing option in this country. With the measures that the Government are putting in place and the support of all Members in challenging the myths about custom and self-build, we are firmly on the path to realising that ambition. I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her work in pushing and championing what is undoubtedly a critical part of this country’s future and the homes that we must build for the next generation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.