Calls for government to do more for self builders as planning approvals drop to lowest levels since 2006

Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak walking in Durham with other Conservative members
The government has been called on to do more for self builders to help them gain planning permission for their projects as planning approvals hit record lows in 2023 (Image credit: Getty Images)

In the wake of the Conservative Party's victory in the 2019 general election, one of their prominent promises was to empower individuals with aspirations of self building their homes. 

Their election manifesto boldly declared a commitment to "bolster community housing by facilitating access to land for those eager to construct their own residences".

 To turn this vision into reality, Member of Parliament Richard Bacon, representing South Norfolk, was tasked with a comprehensive report aimed at elevating the annual count of custom and self-build homes from 13,000 to an ambitious 40,000.

Fast forward four years, and data emerging from the Department of Levelling Up reveals a disheartening trend in self build planning applications across England, reaching their lowest figures since 2006.

The government has been criticised for its lack of action to resolve these issues with some claims the government has adopted "anti-development policies". We examine what can be changed and why the government's actions have failed self builders.

Some councils are failing to grant any self build plots

In the last quarter of 2022 (October to December), there was a 13% drop in the number of planning applications, as well as a 12% drop in the number of those that were granted, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics

Overall, the number of applications that were granted last year were down 11% from the year before.

Additionally, government figures show permissions granted for plots for custom and self builds decreased by 23% in the year to 30 October 2022, and planning permissions for self build homes specifically decreased by 11%.

Even more concerningly, one out of every five local planning authorities in England did not approve any self build or custom build housing in the year leading up to October 2022.

This has resulted in calls for a planning system overhaul after planning applications in 2023 have hit their lowest records since 2006 with housebuilders losing confidence in the system.

Calls for a shake-up of the planning system

Commenting, Castell Group director of property developers, Dorian Payne, criticised the UK planning system, describing it as an "omnishambles". 

Payne suggested that obtaining planning permission is more of a "submit and cross your fingers" approach and the planning system is "part of the problem not, as it should be, the solution".

Meanwhile Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman of the HBF, attributed the decline in planning permissions to the government's "anti-development policies and an overall negative stance on homebuilding" and expressed concerns that this could be just the beginning of a more significant issue.

Brian Barry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), recommended increased funding for local authority planning departments, including hiring and training more planning staff, and a greatly simplified planning process to get homes out of "planning purgatory".

Failure of the Right to Build scheme

Councils have been required to maintain a register of individuals interested in pursuing self or custom builds in their region since the introduction of Right to Build measures in 2016. 

The registry's primary objective is to offer councils a clearer understanding of the demand for self build homes in their locality, allowing them to consider it when preparing local plans, negotiating with developers, and disposing of surplus land.

However, councils are not obligated to provide the specific types of sites that people are looking for, despite being responsible for ensuring an adequate number of plots are available to meet local demand. Furthermore, the number of councils with adopted percentage policies for self build plots has only increased by five from the previous year, with 39 councils adopting the policy and 49 having a draft policy.

One reason for the lack of supportive policies in the Right to Build legislature is the suspension of the local plan process by many councils due to proposed changes to planning regulations by Michael Gove. 

Additionally, Gove's changes to planning rules last year made it easier for local authorities to avoid designating sites for development by removing the requirement to demonstrate sufficient land for five years of new construction.

Self build plots sold to developers instead

The aim of Right to Build was to provide enough land for the needs of self builders but according to Michael Holmes, "Right to Build has failed to deliver" as the legislation relies on local authorities agreeing to assign plots for custom and self builders. 

Holmes claims the problem is that local authorities aren't doing this and instead are selling building plots to developers rather than prioritising serviced plots for individuals. 

Local authorities frequently cite a shortage of land as the reason for not offering sufficient service plots to self builders so in an effort to tackle the problem, Prime Minister Liz Truss proposed constructing more homes on green belt land. However, this was short lived as after being replaced by Rishi Sunak, focus shifted back to building only on brownfield sites.

Encouraging building on green belt land by easing planning restrictions continues to be the main solution for local authorities to meet local demand by providing a greater variety of plot types for self builders and housebuilding in general.

The National Federation of Builders (NFB) believes a more nuanced discussion about the greenbelt is required as the government should be "exploring ways to build on green sites within existing communities" to help provide "new rural housing".

Meanwhile, Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the House Builders Associations (HBA), added: "We encourage politicians to reimagine the greenbelt as a tool for prosperity, not a blunt instrument to resist change."

Rishi Sunak speaking at a Business Connect event in North London with a purple background

Rishi Sunak advocated a "brownfield-first strategy" contradicting Liz Truss's plan to build on green belt land (Image credit: Getty Images)

Ditched housebuilding targets also to blame

The Conservatives originally promised to build 300,000 new homes annually, which prompted local authorities to set ambitious housing plans and offer incentives to housebuilders, including custom and self builders. 

But after internal infighting, the target was scrapped with Michael Gove, the Secretary for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities eventually downgrading the policy to make the housing target only "advisory".

Timothy Douglas, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Propertymark, said the government needed to "address the issues rather than step back" calling it a "worrying" mindset. Research by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) showed that 30 local authorities reduced, delayed, or stalled their housebuilding plans in the months leading up to Gove's decision to drop the mandatory target, and another 25 have done so since.

Michael Holmes, Chair of the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA), also criticised the decision and said that the government had created a "perfect storm" for reducing housebuilding, adding that the removal of planning targets gave local authorities the right to ignore the needs of developers and self builders, contributing to the decline of the sector.

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes

Michael is a prominent figure in the property industry, serving as the Director of Content for Homebuilding & Renovating and holding the role of Vice Chair at the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA). He is a well-known property expert with a wealth of experience, having presented numerous property TV shows for major networks and authored "Renovating for Profit." Additionally, he manages an architectural and interior design practice, offering design and project management services. Michael has an extensive background in property, including overseeing 30 building projects, including self builds and the renovation of a Grade-II listed farmhouse. 

Clive Holland, presenter at Fix Radio, also criticised the government's targets, as he stated: "The government target of 300,000 houses to be built per year, even before COVID was extremely unrealistic for a couple of reasons. After Brexit, a lot of our support teams went back to their own countries, we didn't have enough people in our industry, we're already short of trades people as it is. 

"Everybody except for emergency services, and the building industry, believe it or not, and trade associated trades, virtually stopped working during COVID, you know, 80% of the population were furloughed, and so on. So it was always going to be a tricky one, to try and get anywhere near that demand of 300,000 houses built."

Michael Gove sitting at a talk as the secretary of Levelling-Up

Michael Gove removed the mandatory housing targets for local authorities in place of "advisory" targets in what marked yet another government U-turn in the housing market (Image credit: Getty Images)

Nutrient neutrality impacting self builders too

The issue of nutrient neutrality hasn't helped self builders either with building projects delayed and planning decisions stalled as a result.

"Thousands of self build projects are estimated to be stuck in planning limbo due to pollution in rivers, leading to planning delays and obstacles while councils strive to restore nutrient neutrality in rivers," reports Homebuilding's Jack Woodfield.

The planned government changes to scrap nutrient neutrality were blocked by the House of Lords, despite claims by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) that 145,000 homes in 74 local authorities were being prevented due to the measures.

Joseph Mullane
News Editor

News Editor Joseph has previously written for Today’s Media and Chambers & Partners, focusing on news for conveyancers and industry professionals.  Joseph has just started his own self build project, building his own home on his family’s farm with planning permission for a timber frame, three-bedroom house in a one-acre field. The foundation work has already begun and he hopes to have the home built in the next year. Prior to this he renovated his family's home as well as doing several DIY projects, including installing a shower, building sheds, and livestock fences and shelters for the farm’s animals. Outside of homebuilding, Joseph loves rugby and has written for Rugby World, the world’s largest rugby magazine.