10 Apr 2017

Chris Bates, Editor of Build It, examines the challenges facing the Right to Build

Chris Bates
Editor, Build It magazine
Chris Bates, Editor of Build It, examines the challenges facing the Right to Build

We’re now nearly six months into the Right to Build proper and, according to NaCSBA, at last count over 18,000 people had signed up to a self build register.

The Right to Build went live on 31st October 2016, when the Housing & Planning Act came into effect. This marked the culmination of over five years of legislation that aims to make self and custom build a mainstream part of the UK housebuilding industry.

Fundamentally, the scheme means that local authorities have a duty to grant enough planning consents on serviced plots to meet demand measured on their Right to Build registers (which they’re supposed to have been running since 1st April 2016).

Demand is measured in 12-month base periods (starting on 31st October) and the idea is that sufficient plots should be permissioned within a three-year cycle.

The logic behind the Right to Build is to simultaneously tackle three key barriers consumers face in trying to create an individual home. These are the availability of land; difficulties in obtaining planning consent; and the ease with which finance can be secured (the latter is addressed through the provision of more cost-certain, reduced-risk serviced plots).

It’s not hard to see how this could be a potentially game-changing policy for the self and custom build industry, which currently delivers around 13,000 new homes every year. But there are also dangers that we as an industry need to be ready to tackle.

The government’s stated aim is to increase self and custom build output to 20,000 per year by 2020 and, despite the recent regime change, all the signs are that it continues to see custom build as a key part of its housing strategy.

But it’s one thing pledging support and putting funding in place, and another actually establishing the scheme as a viable route to delivering more housing.

A few months ago, I wrote an in-depth piece for Build It magazine on how consumers can sign up for the Right to Build – and it opened my eyes to some of the challenges the industry faces in maximising the policy’s potential, and the potential dangers of not getting enough people signed up.

Here are just a few of the issues we need to address:

Not all councils have a Right to Build register

Back in December 2016, we found that 13 councils (just under 4% of the 336 eligible authorities in England) weren’t running a register at all. And that was eight months after they became mandatory.

Some of their planning and housing departments hadn’t even heard of the Right to Build – and I spent a good deal of time on hold whilst they scratched their heads about it.

Most of those we named and shamed at the time have now established a register, and things have certainly improved, but we’ve yet to establish whether Croydon, Luton and Sandwell are now fulfilling their obligations.

Will councils get on board with the Right to Build?

While 99% of local authorities may now be running a register, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being proactive about marketing it to would-be self builders.

We’ve all seen how different councils can take totally different positions on housing development (of whatever type). The likes of Teignbridge, Cherwell and Plymouth are leading an enlightened vanguard but others will take much longer to get on board.

The recently announced NaCSBA Task Force should go a long way to helping with this. But it can’t do it all on its own and we need more industry leaders to educate councils on the benefits self and custom build can bring.

These benefits could range from more palatable development (compared to what the market in general is delivering) through to opportunities for making money from plot sales to feed in to other crucial services.

Lack of demand on the registers is a big danger

This is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Put simply, if the wider public doesn’t know about the Right to Build, it will be next to impossible to establish the level of demand we need for some councils to take self and custom build seriously.

Local authorities may even be able to argue that there’s no real demand for them to permission plots and potentially push for the Right to Build to be mothballed.

The 336 English councils and national park authorities are charged with not only keeping a register, but also actively publicising it. The responsibility to do so is enshrined in the Self Build & Custom Housebuilding Act, but it’s somewhat undefined.

At present, for many councils this seems to equate to little more than hosting a Right to Build page on their websites (which may or may not be easy to find).

I’d like to see this information being made much more prominent, and for more councils to market the registers in their email activity and those lovely glossy ‘news’ magazines we get through the door each month.

We must do our bit to market the registers

We might have the government’s political will firmly behind us at the moment, but the industry needs to be careful not to rest on its laurels.

NaCSBA’s count from December 2016 put the number at 18,000 registrations. It’s a good start, but that only works out as a shade over 50 registrations per council – and many had next to zero. We’re expecting updated figures from NaCSBA soon and I hope they’ve continued to grow strongly.

Everyone in the industry needs to do their part to get more people registered. I’d urge all of you who read this to include something on your own websites. That could be a permanent story badged up on your homepage, or an advert pushing through to the Right to Build Portal.

Build It has put together some free downloadable Right to Build ads (MPUs and bannners) for use online, and you’re welcome to embed these into your websites with a link to www.righttobuildportal.org

Right to Build

Build It’s Right to Build MPU – to host on your own website

Complex sign-ups could put people off

Our experience of self builders is that they’re detailed in their research and fastidious in what they do. But if we want to grow the market we need to hook in the people for whom this hasn’t previously been a realistic option.

I’ve personally checked out around 100 forms, and some of them are pretty laborious to go through. Anyone involved in marketing a business will know that the more steps you put in front of someone, the more likely they are to drop off before they’ve signed up.

I can understand planning/housing strategy departments wanting to gain some detail to help them identify the types and locations of plots required, but I’m not clear on the need for questions like the following at the early registration stage:

  • How interested are you in custom build? (presumably pretty interested, otherwise why would you be here?)
  • Would you like to tackle a project in 0-5 years, 6-10 years, 11-15 years or 16+ years?
  • What’s your budget for the heating spec; renewable energy sources; kitchen and bathroom etc?

And then you get issues where the use of radio buttons means you’re forced to select a single answer where multiple options might apply to you (such as whether you’d consider a plot in a village, town or in the countryside).

Charging for entry onto Right to Build registers

The legislation allows it, but for me the jury is still very much out on this one.

Of course, councils need to allocate resources to maintain their registers and link people with plots. But the idea of charging potential self builders for the privilege of going onto a register that may or may not offer them a suitable plot doesn’t sit entirely comfortably.

Councils could seek funding from one of the numerous government funds to cover these costs, for instance, and they’ll still be charging planning application fees. There’s also potential to make a profit on land they either own or are involved in enabling, as we’re witnessing at Graven Hill.

Islington Council became the first to charge for its register back in December and its £350 fee looks pretty eye-watering. The council has come out in defence of the charge, but to my mind that kind of sum could put people off and potentially skew the levels of demand indicated on registers.

Editor’s comment

Bates’ review of the threats to the Right to Build is very perceptive. Not many councils market their registers, and there’s often little understanding of them by local residents – with little or no local press coverage creating awareness.

He’s correct to say that the danger of not having people signing up could have a huge negative impact on the sector if councils use this to evidence a lack of local enthusiasm.

The fact is, that those councils that have the most activity locally often have the most signatories on their lists is evidence to the contrary. So the sector must do what the councils are unable, or unwilling, to do to create local awareness.


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One Response to “Chris Bates, Editor of Build It, examines the challenges facing the Right to Build”

  1. pinewbold says:

    Take a look at http://www.aecb.net/passivhaus-planning-refusal/ which is a sorry tale of how planning at every level have no idea what sustainable housing means. NPPF Para 55 seems to give Councils the right to refuse almost all rural development on the basis that the lack of an adjacent public transport link renders a site as "isolated"