Buried deep within the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is a line encouraging self-build. Clause 159 states that local authorities (LAs) should address the need for all types of housing, including: ‘people wishing to build their own homes’. It may not stand out as the most significant point in the document, but it represents quite a breakthrough, because self-build has never before been officially recognised in our housing mix. Many of us have lobbied hard to get self-build recognised in the planning system and this is, to date, the fruits of our labour.
The next stage will be even more taxing, for now we have to get LAs to act. It’s not enough to simply get a mention in a national planning policy; this by itself won’t release a single extra building plot. Now we have to make a case to LAs in England that there’s a demand for self-build. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not affected by the NPPF and, in any event, tend to have more self-build-friendly policies.
The mechanism for change is via a Strategic Housing Market Assessment, which our LAs are required to undertake in order to formulate their local plans. This is likely to happen fairly quickly because, as it stands, the NPPF accepts the possibility of sustainable building in open countryside if there is no local plan in place (as is the case in around half of LAs), and this has been a very sore point with the countryside campaigners. Consequently, LAs will be under great pressure to produce new plans over the coming months.
The process of producing local plans is nothing new. Essentially, it involves drawing lines around settlements, the so-called village envelope boundaries, to distinguish farmland from potential building land. These lines started appearing in the 1950s and haven’t changed much to this day. When they do change, they tend to release large parcels of land on town edges which are then snapped up by big housebuilders. Self-build doesn’t get a look-in. In Germany, small sites on the edge of villages are made available for building one-off family homes. Sometimes limits are put in place to ensure that the resultant development is modest in scale, or meets the specific needs of the local community. But this still allows villages to develop organically, and young people are not forced to move away into the towns and cities. It’s not seen as controversial, nor as destroying the green belt. Instead it’s viewed as a continuation of the processes that brought villages into existence in the first place.
It’s doubtful that the NPPF will enable such development in England because we have, over the years, created a siege-mentality about our countryside and the likes of the National Trust and The Daily Telegraph run very effective campaigns to maintain the status quo. That’s not going to go away just because we have a new planning policy. Realistically, the more likely outcome is that when another large edge-of-town development is given the go-ahead, a corner will be set aside for self-build. This will enable LAs to be seen to have met the demand for people wanting to self-build.
But not every LA is the same and one or two of the more enlightened may begin to shape German-style self-build policies. One such trailblazer is Shropshire, which had a self-build-friendly policy in place before the NPPF was even being mooted. It accepts that much village housing in the county is unaffordable to locals and that, if an applicant can demonstrate that they are in housing need, it will permit modest building in open countryside. Every case is to be argued on its merits, so it’s a long way from allowing the free-for-all build-fest that the National Trust so fears. But it does show that LAs have ears and can understand that the definition of affordable housing can often be extended to include self-build.
The problem with the Shropshire model is that not only does it limit house size, but it puts a restriction on resale value, as if it were an agricultural tie. Not only is this a disincentive to individual self-builders, but it also makes finance much harder to come by. But it is a step in the right direction and it shows that rural exception sites have a place.
So if you are living in a rural area and you dream of being able to build nearby, but can’t see a way of ever being able to find an affordable plot, you could do worse than look at Shropshire’s ‘Build Your Own Affordable Home’ pack, and perhaps send a copy to your local councillors and ask if they are considering anything similar.