Cllr Barry Wood is the Leader of Cherwell District Council.
Much has been rightly said recently about housing authorities stepping up to the plate in helping the Government provide 300,000 additional homes every year.
One area of housing provision that cries out for intervention is facilitating those who want to build their own home or customise a shell to their own requirements. I accept that this is not our national tradition, but it is time to think hard about being brave and innovative and to dispel the misunderstanding that this route to ownership is in the “too difficult box”. For too long the proportion of self-building here has lagged far behind other nations.
For Conservative councillors there is a particular opportunity to lead and help provide people with a real choice in buying the house they always wanted to have. The standard delivery models of the big five builders are not for everyone.
At a former army depot in Bicester, Oxfordshire, a brownfield site is now the largest self-build and custom-build housing project in the country. Over a ten year span 1,900 such houses is the ambition and the sales of “golden brick plots” are selling in phases on target.
How this has come to pass has its own controversies around “what is the role of a Council interfering in the market.” But Conservative-run Cherwell has taken the view that helping folk have a choice is a worthy objective, albeit as you would expect with close and proper risk management.
What did we do then?
The Council purchased the site from the Ministry of Defence after it was zoned for mixed use development in the Local Plan. This was not cheap, the Section 106 commitments are substantive.
We then set up an arms-length development company which is a hundred per cent owned by the Council. We long ago changed from being a stock holding authority so this step was essential. The concept is that the company will be profitable but not super profitable. The return on investment for the shareholder is good, and there are exit strategies if the concept falters. I don’t think it will, but safe takes preference over sorry.
The company has a marketing suite in the town centre. It is called the “Plot Shop”. Purchasers are sold a “plot passport” and a “golden brick”. The former gives access to quick and easy planning permission delivered under a Permitted Development Order and the latter gives a serviced foundation slab of the requisite size.
The passport also sets out limitations on height and distance from the road edge and purchasers are time limited on how long they can take, to avoid others living in a building site environment for an unreasonable duration. To date most self builders have chosen standard appearances and materials. However, many people (circa 60 per cent) choose some form of offsite manufacture, rather than a brick on brick approach. It de-risks the process and gives certainty on cost, while having many of the advantages of traditional self build. Another myth dispelled.
There is a complete range of sizes including apartments and terraces. The obvious and first question visitors to the project ask is “how much is a completed house then, is it cheaper than a standard house elsewhere in the housing market area?” The answer, also interestingly, is that they can be £20,000 to £30,000 cheaper but that actually the self-builders add bells and whistles of their own design that bring them up to average prices. You pays your money and makes your own choices.
If other councils would like a full briefing on our journey to date, don’t hesitate to ask.