18 Jan 2016

Interview: Jeremy Christophers, Leader of Teignbridge Council, talks about the council’s innovative policy making in support of custom build

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Who
Jeremy Christophers
Title
Leader of Teignbridge Council
Where
Teignbridge Council
When
18/01/2016
Interview: Jeremy Christophers, Leader of Teignbridge Council, talks about the council’s innovative policy making in support of custom build Jeremy Christophers

Having self-built his own home, Jeremy Christophers, Leader of Teignbridge Council, wanted to bring self and custom build to a wider audience. In 2011 the council invited NaCSBA, then NASBA, to host a workshop about the potential of self build and how councils could support it. As an advocate for self build, Christophers visited Almere, in the Netherlands with the then Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, a visit which prompted the council to pitch for, and be awarded, Vanguard status.

“This brought with it £100,000 of funding, and we used this to develop policy for custom and self build, with a major focus on freeing up and enabling land delivery,” says Christophers. “In addition, we also employed a self build project officer for 12 months, which we’ve since extended to two years, to help bring individual projects forward.”

Legislative focus

“As a council we decided that policy was a significant stumbling block when it came to people finding land. We conducted a survey of small developers, and 36% of the respondents said the cost and time of the planning process, coupled with the issue of land supply – listed by another 32% – were the main barriers to delivery.

“Consequently, we’ve used legislation to try and remove this from the equation, to help local people start to realise that self and custom build is a realisable goal,” says Christophers.

With this focus, Teignbridge Council produced a Local Plan that specifically provides active support for land supply for custom build, which it defines as, “housing built or commissioned by individuals (or groups of individuals) for their own occupation”. This is intrinsically linked with the provision of affordable housing, which the plan defines as “properties that are no more than 80% of market levels, where there are local households with a need for affordable housing”.

The council is also confident of a local demand for custom build, with figures pointing to over 3,000 individual subscriptions to search for plots since 2001.

To help meet this demand, Teignbridge took the innovative step of guaranteeing the provision of custom build land by requiring that sites of 20 dwellings or more must include the provision of at least 5% of plots for sale to custom builders. The plan also includes a caveat for custom builders, in that properties must to be completed within three years of plot purchase.

The thinking behind this legislative measure is to guarantee the supply of land for the custom build market, without which the council feels that these potential individual home builders would struggle to find sites. “We had to get the policy right, to facilitate land supply,” says Christophers.

“As council leader, I’m looking to make self and custom build a pivotal point of our neighbourhood plans going forwards. We’re looking at affordable housing surveys that examine self and custom build, so that we can measure demand at a local level. This will ensure that when we write a neighbourhood plan, housing will be key to it rather than a bolt on that’s not been properly considered,” he adds.

While not a solution for every council, Christophers points out that the 5% rule is useful in that it forces custom build onto the agenda when developers meet with planners to discuss housing projects. “Effectively the conversation about serviced plots for self or custom build is already on the table,” says Christophers.

“It also chimes very well with current national policy, in that the Government is keen to back homeowners and not renters, and custom build also supports self-motivated people doing things for themselves, part of the political zeitgeist,” he adds.

Social capital

For Teignbridge, custom build is a key element in the diversification of its housing supply– vital for a robust market – as well as affordability, but the authority also sees a huge bonus in the social capital that it offers. “This is something that is often overlooked by councils,” says Christophers.

“Being involved with the construction of your own home, on whatever level, brings community benefits. These people are going to give more back locally as they’re going to be living in the home they really want, which suits their lifestyle. What’s more, they often live in these homes for a longer time, when compared to a houses purchased from a volume supplier,” he states.

For Christophers, volume builders will always be an essential part of the mix, but he explains that some people move into low-cost developments as a way of getting on the ladder, with the intention that they will move on from these estates as soon as possible. This means that they don’t tend to put down roots in the same way, as their circumstances are dictated by improved finances.

“In rural England we’ve got a responsibility to make it easier for young people to stay and be part of the community,” says Christophers. “If these generations leave it contributes to the gentrification of rural areas, with the proliferation of second homes, which in turn leads to isolation for older generations. All these aspects need to be considered in rural policy making, especially for authorities such as ours, which encompass property hotspots like popular holiday destinations.”

Teignbridge’s Custom and Self Build Housing Draft Supplementary Planning Document, will be in force by March 2016. This effectively refines its custom and self build policy, and includes useful guidance, including examples of planning applications and plot passports. “We wanted to be very precise and remove as much speculation and risk as we possibly could,” says Christophers, a commitment that  complements NaCSBA’s recently launched toolkit, which also helps with this de-risking process. “We want to give potential custom builders the confidence to take the plunge and commit to building their own home,” he says.

Part of being a Vanguard council means that Teignbridge is expected to share its experiences of custom build, in an effort to help develop best practice across the sector.

“We’re more than happy for other authorities to look at our policy documents and cherry pick the best of them. We’ve hosted workshops with NaCSBA for our neighbouring authorities, which have been tremendously well-received, and we’re more than happy for the nation to benefit from our experiences if it helps relieve the housing crisis,” says Christophers.

But while Teignbridge is ahead of the game in terms of legislation, its focus on policy has meant that it has fewer custom build sites coming forward than Christophers would like. “What I now need on a local level is to have two or three sites that have been delivered in the next 12 months, so that people can see the end results of custom building, rather than just dream about it – they need to know that it’s achievable,” he says.

“We know the public is on board with the pretty basic requirement for local housing,” says Christophers, “and custom build offers a route to building plots that would be supported locally, rather than opposed.

“The idea of building houses for local people in their 20s is an easy win in terms of selling the concept to the community,” he says, “as many people would like their children to have the opportunity to live locally. However, the reality is that most potential builders are in their 40s, before they’re financially secure enough to build.”

So for Teignbridge the challenge remains to turn its policy into keys in doors. “We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved as a council with regards to custom build,” says Christophers, “but it’s frustrating to know how much we’ve put in place on a legislative level, but without the practical delivery that follows that.

“But I firmly believe that in five years we’ll be in a different position, and looking at a range of sites that are the direct results of the policy we’re putting in place now. Hopefully, by then we’ll be able to look back at a decade that’s changed the way we look at housing provision locally, forever,” he says.

Teignbridge Council has a list of its self build sites on its website.

Editor’s comment

Teignbridge’s position is laudable in that the council has worked hard to create a definitive approach to custom build that’s encapsulated in, and supported by policy. Many authorities would balk at such a prescriptive approach as requiring all new, larger sites to contain a percentage of custom build plots. But as Christophers explains, it means that every potential developer approaches planning knowing that custom build will need to be factored in on most sites. It is a bold solution to ensuring custom build is a real option for its residents, which is not something most local authorities can claim. Teignbridge’s Custom and Self-Build policy makes for interesting reading, and I’d urge every local authority to take a look as an example of best practice.

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