Double what? Self-build targets and statistics

Two and a half years after the Government announced its intention to double the number of self-built homes over a decade, it’s increasingly unclear what its target actually means.

The reason for this lack of clarity lies in the nature of both the target and self-build statistics on which it is based – as well as the way they have both been used since the ‘doubling’ pledge was first announced.

On first hearing, the target sounds clear. It has both a level of delivery to be achieved (i.e. double output) and a timeframe to achieve it (i.e. over a decade). But they have both proven somewhat flexible since first announced.

First, there is the nature of the timeframe. Back in July 2011 ‘over the next decade’ sounded fairly clear: it meant by July 2021. But over the last 32 months, with each reference to the doubling target, the ‘over the next decade’ timeframe has been repeated, meaning that it remains forever ten years away. Tomorrow never comes.

Then there is the nature of the target level of delivery. By remaining unattached to any precise number of self-build completions, the promise to double existing levels has proven prone to movement over time. So when the commitment was announced in 2011 the existing level of self-build completions reported by ministers was 15,000 homes a year; the target – by implication – was 30,000. Since then, different ministers have attached the doubling pledge to purported existing levels of self-build completions of 14,000, 13,000, 11,000 – and late last year the Secretary of State managed to work it all the way down to 7,000.

This means that – as it stands in the most recent announcement – the target to be delivered ‘over the next decade’ (14,000) implied by ministers is now lower than the levels that they suggested were already being delivered when the target was first announced back in 2011 (15,000).

So what’s going on? Have the number of self-build completions genuinely halved in the last three years?

There are two answers to this question. The first and simple answer is no. While the most official statistics, as reported in last weekend’s Sunday Times, are steadily falling, since 2010 they have not fallen by as much as ministers suggest. The second – slightly more complicated – answer is that nobody really knows.

This is because the official stats are at best a rough estimate. Current statistics are based on the number of people who fill in the Inland Revenue’s 20-page form VAT431NB which allows self-builders to reclaim VAT on their build.

But the National Self-Build Association in their Self Build Action Plan (supported by DCLG) explain how unreliable this data may be. Apart from the fact that the form itself is quite complex, self-builders have only three months to file it with the Revenue and need to include all the correct VAT invoices for their build with their submission. Many don’t bother, still others go through VAT registered builders or their own VAT registered companies.

The ropiness of the official stats means that, even if were the Government to commit to doubling the official figures based on July 2011 levels by July 2021, no one could really be certain that it would represent a genuine doubling of the number of self-build completions.

This point may seem academic, given the fact that even the indicative figures are falling. But as the Government has made such a public commitment to promoting self-build, and as, despite their series of announcements to do so, their efforts appear to be failing, more robust data would provide an opportunity for proper scrutiny.

As already discussed here, driving a step-change in self-build is going to take more than just political good will. While no one can doubt the Government’s enthusiasm for the principle of self-build, doubling completions over any time frame by any measure is going to mean making genuinely tough choices. The first of these might usefully be getting some statistics that we can all have confidence in, setting a target and sticking to it.