05 Jun 2018

Alex South explains how Veterans Self Build creates homes and futures for homeless ex-forces personnel

Alex South
Project Manager
Community Self Build Agency/Veterans Self Build
Alex South explains how Veterans Self Build creates homes and futures for homeless ex-forces personnel

Veterans Self Build (VSB) is a rebranding of the Community and Self Build Agency (CSBA), the charity founded 30 years ago to give disenfranchised people an opportunity to gain training and a foot on the housing ladder.

As the name suggests, Veterans Self Build works to create homes and training opportunities for homeless veterans, and operates as a subsidiary of the CSBA. It works with a range of ex-service personnel, who have found themselves homeless after leaving the forces.

For all of those affected by it, homelessness comes with multiple challenges and prejudices, often exacerbated with addiction problems.

“But homeless veterans come with their own set of challenges, in that they tend to be resilient, with a deep sense of pride that can make it difficult for them to accept support,” says Alex South, Project Manager at the Community Self Build Agency (centre, main image).

This often requires reprocessing in terms of thinking, and the Self-build model sits well with this concept of them helping themselves.

“We do things completely differently from other charities,” says South. “Ex-service men and women have an affinity with teamwork and a deep-routed sense of community and comradeship, and this is at the core of what Veterans Self Build sets out to develop.

“Quite simply we work to forge a community and build something that is worthwhile. And while the bricks and mortar are obviously highly important, for us the value really comes with starting out on a path to recovery.”

The Group Custom Build route to new lives

To get a project started, South explains that, typically, the CSBA will look to partner with a pro-active local authority and housing association to create a scheme using a multi-agency approach.

Ideally, the local authority is able to offer a route to affordable land for the project, with Veterans Self Build typically working with a local housing authority and with the support of Homes England (previously HCA).

This is bolstered with various capital cost donations, enabling  the charity to come up with a Self-build scheme for homeless veterans. Although this is branded Self-build, in reality it is Group Custom Build as the builders are working together, with enabling partners, to create a development.

The affordability of the land is a core component, as is the sweat equity of using the able-bodied Self-builders to contribute to the construction of the homes.

But the real works starts with the creation of the homeless veterans’ group, creating a community of people with the commitment and determination to follow the project through, rebuilding their lives as they build their homes.

“At Veterans Self Build we talk about a recovery path, we talk about transformation and we talk about community. And it’s the community that we start off with, very early on in the build stage.”

“Creating a sense of community and worth is vital, therefore we start by taking everyone away for team-building. This includes a variety of mental and physical tasks to help re-establish the principals of teamwork, which is crucial when people have been fending for themselves,” he adds.

With the community in place and affordable land sourced, the capital needed to fund the project is arranged, ideally through Government via Homes England funding, but also through local support and grants. This could be from councils, registered housing providers, private companies or through fund raising.

“As a charity, we can manage the capital costs,” says South, “but revenue costs are the issue as we’re a hand-to-mouth charity without a regular income. So we’re completely reliant on donations for this.”

From this point, the process is the same for any project, with the design and submission of plans to the local authority.

Micheal Fallon at the Nelson Project

Former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and Oliver Colville MP talk to some of the self builders working on the Nelson Project

While this takes place, the new community undergoes training to give them the construction skills that will both help them build their new homes, but also offer them a new route to employment.

“Working on site gives a huge sense of achievement for the veterans, giving them a sense of ownership in the project that they’re building,” says South.

“And once the contractors see their dedication, we’ve found that they start to include and trust them, too. This then brings the veterans into this trade-based community, which also contributes to the burgeoning sense of self-confidence.”

The result of this work helps the people forge new lives, re-engaging them with society and giving them back their pride.

And the results are impressive. At the Nelson project, all of the homeless veterans who worked on the development now have homes, and for one builder it’s his first home in 33 years. And South reports that all of those with addiction problems are now either clean or dry, with those who are physically able all back in work.

Intrinsically entwined with these personal success stories are the wider social benefits, as all of them have reconnected with families that they’d lost touch with.

Praise for the scheme has been considerable, and the team swept up at the local Abercrombie Awards where the Nelson Project was declared the winner of the Abercrombie Award for Design Excellence and won the award for the Best Smaller Development Category. In addition, it was awarded the award for Excellence in Planning to Deliver Homes (Large Schemes) at the RTPI Awards 2018.

The Nelson Project, and it’s reception both locally and nationally, has paved the way for further schemes to come online, and the team has presented at the Right to Build Expo and been to Parliament to tell their story, too.

The Veterans Self Build is keen to role the model out to more sites across the country, and there are more projects coming on locally, with a former residential home in Honicknowle earmarked for a Veterans Self Build. This time the model will be tweaked to provide Self-build homes for veteran families in housing crisis.

Get involved: Veterans Self Build relies on fund raising to finance its projects. You can raise money for them or donate at its Just giving page – it’s just launched fundraising for Honickknowle.

Case Study: Nelson project – an authority’s perspective

The Nelson Project came about as a result of Plymouth City Council’s Plan for Homes, which set out the city’s vision to lead and provide resources to accelerate and increase housing, working with a range of providers. As part of the plan it was keen to create a flagship scheme on council-owned land, as a model for new routes to housing.

Aware of the Plan for Homes, the Communities Self Build Agency, through Veterans Self Build, created the concept of a Self-build scheme with housing authority DCH (now merged with Knightstone to become Liverty), and took the proposition to Plymouth City Council.

Under the umbrella of the Plan for Homes, Plymouth City Council had a proactive role and garnered cross-party political support for the project. Its team worked hard on site identification, planning, housing delivery, prioritising allocations and sourcing significant funding, working closely with the key stakeholders around a shared vision as equal partners.

It was agreed that the project would proceed on the site of a derelict learning disability care home. Because the scheme was 100% affordable, the council’s valuation allowed it to dispose of the site for a £1. Funding came from a range of sources, including the HCA and commuted sums from Section 106 payments.

Liverty had a pivotal role as both developer and landlord, and contributed significant capital funding to the development in the form of private lending and internal subsidy.

nelson project

During and following the launch of the project. Plymouth City Council worked to celebrate the success as a way to share the experience, with the aim of developing a model that could be replicated nationally. As a council, it was keen to illustrate that a local authority could, and should, be able to team up with a registered housing provider to meet a specific housing challenge in an area of identified need

The scheme created 24 flats, with 12 units for the homeless veteran builders; six flats for people with low-level learning disabilities; and six affordable rentals for people in housing need.

Form Design designed the development, with an L shaped residential block wrapping around a rear parking area, while Interserve was the main contractor, working alongside and supporting the veterans.

Case Study: Michael’s story

Michael worked on submarines for 14 years, but his circumstances changed when he returned to civilian life following an injury and honourable discharge. Life on a disability pension led to financial hardships that contributed to the breakdown of his relationship, the loss of the family home and ultimately homelessness.

A chance meeting at a Help for Heroes canteen reconnected him with South, who he’d worked with as a submariner. As he was aware of Michael’s abilities, South got him involved with the Nelson project as a volunteer.

Now he’s trained, employed and back in the system, working as National Fund Raising Director for the charity and looking forward to the chance of getting stuck in to help build his own home.

Beyond reclaiming lives and housing homeless people, these projects have a deeper impact, as Michael explains: “This pioneering work opens up opportunities for creativity and the potential for work for local industry and architects.”

“But the bleeding edge of social housing and the problems that the homeless face in the UK is increasing. Schemes like the Veterans Self Build offer opportunities for people to move forward in their own life, often from a point where it’s difficult for them to see a future.”

“It offers ex-service personnel, who have skills and determination, a chance at a new life, giving them a second chance to embark on a Self-build while rebuilding their lives. I’d love to see this rolled out as a wider solution to homelessness – it’s a great business opportunity and a chance to engage with the wider community.”

Click here for a detailed insight into the Nelson Project.

Credit: Nelson Project, Form Design

Editor’s comment

Veterans Self Build is a testament to the sheer will power that drives change – it is an organisation creating homes in the smallest of gaps in the housing market, providing skills, homes and futures for its veterans. And there is social equity tied into this – not only in the moral value to society of having fewer people living on the streets, but in the fact that these people are once again engaged – with family, economy and society. As well as dealing with their past and present, Group Custom Building gives them a future, too.

This is something to celebrate and be proud of. James Andrew Cox of Lichfields puts forward a similar argument for using Self Build to alleviate homelessness in his blog – another interesting application of the social side of Custom and Social Build.

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