“Garlic bread. It’s the future.” Comedian Peter Kay’s rather deprecating joke may seem out of place on these pages, but the notion of trumpeting something old as something new makes me realise that ‘what goes around, comes around’ in the world of self build, too.
During a long conversation with a professor who was preparing a report on the self build industry, the topic of custom build and the provision of serviced plots came up: did I think such ‘innovations’ would dramatically affect the fortune of self build?
One of the few advantages of age is that, with 52 years in the business, I’ve seen it all before. Sometimes a concept is almost certainly doomed to the failure it had before; sometimes, as with custom build and the provision of serviced plots, it’s a great idea that deserves another outing.
In the ’60s, although they wouldn’t have recognised themselves as self builders, thousands commissioned companies such as Woolaway and Colt to custom build them a new home. Then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the emergent package deal companies such as Potton and Design & Materials offered a service whereby their clients chose from a catalogue of designs with only minor variations allowable. Most builds at this time were not individual but instead group self builds and there were several management companies — Wadsworth pre-eminent among them.
They were helped by the fact that many local and New Town authorities – North Cornwall, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Milton Keynes, Telford, Swansea and Daventry to name but a few – had set aside vast tracts of land, with plots numbering in the hundreds, for the exclusive use of self builders. There were a few rules: you had to be a bona fide self builder, although quite a few small builders slipped through the net.
Custom building gradually fell out of favour in the late 1970s; perhaps this was because of the growing recognition that self builders wanted individual design. Group self build fell in the ‘Lawson crash’ of 1988-1989 when so many group members found themselves in financial trouble, unable to sell their existing homes.
In the decades that have followed, custom build and group self build have both been pushed aside by the rise of individual self build. But, until very recently, whenever self build was mentioned to those in Government or those unfamiliar with the dynamism of our industry, they still thought of self build in terms of either a custom or group activity.
Small wonder then that now that the policy makers have woken up to this industry, the tools by which they seek to expand it should include the provision of serviced plots.
Is it self build? Of course it is — self build is a very broad church. It encompasses those who build almost entirely by DIY, and it includes the Beckhams whose physical activity in their build in Sawbridgeworth probably amounted to the turning of brochure pages. And it can and will include those who commission the build of a home on a serviced plot.
So what’s in it for the companies springing up to fulfil this ‘new’ demand? Well, development is a risk: land is purchased and money is pushed out for infrastructure, services and housebuilding. But the provision of serviced plots sees a quicker return. The risk is lessened and while profit may be a little smaller, it’s a dead cert. Everyone’s a winner and we should be celebrating — perhaps with that novel delicacy, garlic bread.