15 Feb 2017

South Cambs District Council shares its custom build philosophy – and action plan

South Cambs District Council shares its custom build philosophy – and action plan

South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) was one of 11 Vanguard councils established in 2014 to pioneer custom and self build. CBS spoke to Housing Portfolio Holder Cllr Lynda Harford and Custom/Self Build Regional Manager Laurence Castle about the authority’s custom build journey.

“SCDC has always been a forwarding-looking council, and a while back we realised that, in future, councils would need to become more commercial and self-reliant,” says Harford, pictured.

“This enabled SCDC to be highly responsive to government initiatives for changing the way homes are delivered. And being a Vanguard fitted in well with this ethos.”

As part of the Vanguard award, the council was granted £50,000 to bring on 100 plots for custom and self build, money that was used to research and market its activities, and also appoint a project officer.

“We know that the demographic of South Cambs reflects an overall prosperous population, but beyond this there’s a range of ambition and affordability among the people we serve,” explains Harford.

Cllr Lynda Harford, South Cambridshire District Council“And self and custom build is one tool that allows us to deliver against this breadth. It may also contribute to overcoming some of the challenges related to affordability.”

Underpinning this is a commitment to supporting a variety of housing suppliers as the council links the local housing shortfall to the unrealistic expectation that volume builders alone can deliver all identified needs.

“Custom and self build offers a chance to do something different to support this and is very much in line with current government thinking”,” says Harford.

This is backed up by the house building sector, such as the FMB/LGIU Small is Beautiful report. This supports SMEs and acknowledges that you can’t just rely on just one sector to deliver all the housing needs in your area.

“We need to enable people who want to build their own home to do so, and to look at how we might use this type of provision to deliver in greater numbers,” she says.

South Cambridge District Council’s short term goals
Delivering on 100+ plots
Promoting self and custom build across the board: to national and local government, and also to the public
Becoming a regional hub for self and custom build
Continue to bring land forward for plots
Build on sustainability and new material supply chains

Affordability is seen as a core component of this type of diversification for SCDC. Castle expects that the wider range of building methods and techniques available to self and custom build will offer scope to create more affordable routes to home ownership. This is especially pertinent in a county with high land values.

Consequently, he’s collaborating with the University of East Anglia/Adapt in an investigation of new and alternative materials that could contribute to affordability. “We’re hoping to demonstrate that by using new systems and methods, such as modular housing, people can reach construction costs of £90,000 for a 2-bed house,” he says.

“Part of our current affordable offering is the provision of smaller plots and in time we would hope to offer the option of some self-finish plots. We’re working to minimise build costs in order to maximise the amount of housing that can be brought forward by this sector in the future,” adds Harford.

“We’ve over 600 people registered on our custom and self build register,” says Castle. “Currently we’ve identified over 100 plots in our ownership to bring on for self and custom build – in line with our original Vanguard commitment.”

Castle explains that bringing on plots on the council’s own land is the quickest route to delivery, but SCDC recognises that future land needs to be brought forward from a range of sources. “We know we need to encourage both large and small developers to get involved with plot provision, as well as private landowners.

“We’ve a track record of local people giving up land for local people through our exceptions sites policy, and we’re investigating whether some of these sites could be used for self and custom build,” adds Harford “In addition, we also hope to see land put aside on larger developments for serviced plots.”

APPG Evidence

As Custom/Self Build Regional Manager, Castle (below) compiled evidence for the APPG on Housing and Planning.

Its Right to Build Vanguard Programme examined opportunities and barriers for the sector, with action points for SCDC, together with recommendations for government, business and other Vanguards.

Right to Build Vanguard Programme recommendations
More visible political support
More promotion to enhance public knowledge of custom build
Gentle pressure on local authorities to encourage them to embrace the new legislation and requirements
Vanguard authorities should each prepare a report outlining achievements and best practice

Among the many salient points, Castle advocates government to strategically review tax, such as inheritance and capital gains, to increase land for the sector.

“Government could incentivise the supply of land for custom and self build by giving sellers a tax break on private land sales. This would be conditional on it being ear-marked for the sector.

“This would help bypass them automatically selling to the highest bidder, typically a volume builder.”

The programme also advocates the creation of regional hubs to support sector growth, which reflects SCDC’s collaborative relationship with local authorities in the Eastern Region.

And SCDC definitely sees itself as a regional hub. It’s considering hosting other neighbouring LA registers, to pool experiences and share resources in order to bring on more custom and self build projects.

While creating consistency of process and providing support for less experienced LAs to meet their Right to Build commitments, SCDC envisages that proposed government funding for self/custom build would cover the cost of the service.

And the support of a regoinal hub will help less experienced and resource-stretched regional LAs meet their Right to Build commitments.

“So far, government seems happy with this – the focus is on getting all authorities delivering against the legislation. We’re seeing what we can do to make that happen by offering support and improving regional capability,” adds Harford.

With regards to mortgage funding, SCDC has built a solid relationship with the Arlingclose product. Its Bespoke/Custom Build Mortgages product provides LAs with access to up to 95% LTV mortgage from a range of national lenders, without the need for stage payments.

The product is a true partnership between local authorities and mortgage lenders, where the LA funds the build process from start to finish, and provides an indemnity for the difference between 75% LTV and up to 95% lending.

“Arlingclose has been key in helping us deliver,” says Harford, “and we’re hopeful that we’ll see an increase in financial products that reflect this understanding of the sector.”

And getting the message out there is crucial. Over 2016 the council organised several events to share the successes and pain points of self and custom build, with industry keynote speakers discussing delivery and successes.

“The enthusiasm from the council, developers, landowners and the public has been incredible at these events,” says Castle.

“We’re really promoting the register and the route, and the public reception has been great, reflected by the sheer number of people who’ve signed up to our register.”

“For any authority serious about custom build, the way forward is to create opportunities for all the relevant partners to come together and highlight any experiences that have promoted challenges,” says Harford.

“But for SCDC, we now need to focus on deliverability ­– actually creating the houses.

“Our district needs to deliver 950 houses a year just to meet current demand, and last year we delivered just over half this number. It’s all about getting homes for people, and not just relying on the volume builders.

“And for the council, we’re also very interested in a legacy approach. We want to build on the enthusiasm and identify the pitfalls, and deliver a programme that will enable other councils to learn from our experiences,” she adds.

Harford believes that, of the 11 Vanguards, SCDC, “stands as a beacon of commitment to delivering self and custom build”.  “We’re currently in a really exciting period for developers, planners and housing services, both in LAs and other housing deliverers,” says Harford.

“Everybody deserves a quality home to live in. And once the process becomes more widely recognised by the public, and they can see its successes, it will grow in popularity.”

Read SCDC’s Right to Build Vanguard Programme, here: Right to Build Programme SCambs

Editor’s comment

SCDC has laid the foundations for real growth in the local area. With 600 on its register, its clear that promoting and marketing lists is a way for LAs to create diversity in their housing delivery. And there’s no need for them to go it alone – it makes far more sense for LAs with a strong relationship with custom build to become a regional hub, like SCDC, to share and grow the sector.


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