Revolutionising self-build: is cross-party good-will good enough?

In her first keynote speech as Shadow Housing Minister last week, Emma Reynolds was keen to throw her weight behind calls for a dramatic increase in the number of people commissioning or building their own homes. Her support is in broad accord with the parties of the Coalition and their espousal of a self-build “revolution”.

All politicians seem to agree on the basic points: that self-build is a good thing, and that the proportion of new build homes that are self-built in the UK compared to our European neighbours is a source of national shame:

They even agree on the solution. Just as Reynolds identified in her speech that “one of the key barriers for small and custom builders is access to land”, the Government focussed on freeing up public land for self-build, and reserving land for self-build plots.

What should trouble anyone who genuinely wants to see self-build move into the mainstream is that this consensus is by no means a recent phenomenon.

Fifty years before Reynolds’ speech, almost to the day, Liberal Donald Wade with support from Fenner Brockway of the Labour Party rounded on then-housing and local government minister Frederick Corfield to call for action to make land available and affordable for self-builders. In response, Corfield did not disagree that availability of affordable land for self-builders was not a problem. Instead he took the opportunity to promote the MacMillan Government’s claim to be taking action already to provide the land self-builders needed – including the potential use of compulsory purchase.

Clearly this unanimous political support failed to secure a self-build revolution. Why, then, did self-build fail to materialise as a genuinely significant contributor to the supply of new housing? Without over-simplifying the answer, part of the explanation must surely be that backing self-build is the political equivalent of monogamy: easy to promise, but more difficult to actually do.

Every politician likes the idea of supporting (and preferably being photographed with) self-builders, those hard-working entrepreneurs who are rolling up their sleeves to solve our housing crisis. But when it comes to enabling ordinary people to buy land, all too often that support can be little more than sending good vibes. It turns out that engineering a significant shift to self-build through making affordable plots widely available involves making some difficult decisions. For example,

  • releasing public sector land at below market values will provide affordable plots, but how do you then prevent the self-builders from just selling-up and pocketing the subsidy?  And with finite levels of public land available, is subsidising one new home at a time really a long-term solution?
  • Making self-build plots a requirement on new developments may provide a longer-term solution, but would it come at the cost of much needed affordable housing?
  • Compulsory purchase of developable dormant plots may also provide space, but would any government have the political capital to see it through on a considerable scale?

Later in the year, Shelter will publish our full proposals for how to tackle these difficult decisions and use self-build to deliver tens of thousands of low cost homes. The real test for the current generation of self-build enthusiasts in Westminster will be whether they are willing to follow up their good-will with good policy.