Teignbridge District Council is an innovator in Custom Build, not least for its 2014 Local Plan which put a 5% percentage policy for Custom and Self Build plots on all sites over 20 dwellings.
Having written about the plan when it first came out, Custom Build Strategy was at the recent Right to Build Expo in Exeter, where we got the chance to find out how the plan was shaping up.
“Teignbridge is very much on a journey with Custom and Self Build,” says Council Leader Jeremy Christophers. “We’ve been at the ‘bleeding-edge’ of the sector for six years now and we’re able to share our experiences.
“We believe that if other councils use our practice to inform their own experience, they can be in the same position as we are within three years, if they fully engage with the Right to Build Taskforce.”
Having self-built previously, Christophers is a passionate advocate of Self Build, which quickly becomes clear:
“I believe that people in their mid-twenties, in full employment ought to have the opportunity get on the housing ladder in the community that they grew up in. And Custom and Self Build is one of the mechanisms by which we’re making that happen.”
This passion has led him to becoming a Right to Build Task Force Deputy-Ambassador, a role that helps people understand and embrace the benefits of Custom and Self Build. “For a local authority, it’s not just to do with housing numbers, it’s about homes for local people,” he says.
Teignbridge’s Local Plan, and the supporting Custom and Self Build Housing Supplementary Planning Document, was innovative, as it was the first council to require a percentage policy as a way of ensuring it was bringing on land for Custom and Self Build.
Because Teignbridge DC doesn’t actually own much land itself for serviced-plots, the policy rule was a way of addressing this. However, from the start the percentage policy was about diversity rather than additionality.
But in order to be successful, a policy allocation in itself isn’t a tick-box solution to meeting the Right to Build legislation requirements of plot provision.
Rather, the percentage policy rule is starting point that needs to be part of a far wider range of tools and skills that contribute to making Custom Build happen, and giving people more choice, something Christophers is well-aware of.
To this end, the council actively markets its Right to Build register, with local press coverage, social media and consultation events, and even with a presence at the local SelfBuild & Design Exeter show.
It complements this with research into the local demand picture, backed up by discussions with local businesses about the perceived challenges in the sector.
Recognising the value in having dedicated professionals to spearhead the work, Teignbridge was also one of the first councils to recruit a specialist co-ordinator for Custom and Self Build, appointing Charles Acland in January 2015.
Since then, Acland has been working to support sites come out of the ground, which is rarely a fast process in the building world in general.
But good progress had been made, with 145 consented sites for Custom and Self Build (CSB), across the council’s area, the first of which have recently come to market.
Because the Teignbridge sites are typically a small part of a larger development, the earliest sites are delivering learnings about this form of delivery.
These are useful for the sector, especially in light of the Small Sites consultation currently being undertaken for the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which could see more of this sort of development.
As with any council, affordability is a core value for Teignbridge and its Self Build work is closely linked with providing affordable opportunities for local people.
As part of a larger Redrow development at Newton Abbot, the council has worked with a newly-launched affordable Custom Build housing contractor, Affordable Homes UK, to deliver the Custom homes on the site.
As a housing authority, but not planning authority, it’s also involved with a community-led scheme in Dartmoor National Park that will create five homes for local people in housing need.
It’s also looking at innovative routes to sites, such as using planning white space created by infrastructure works to secure consent for 20 Custom Build homes at Howton Road, Newton Abbot, with 20% of these affordable.
With so many new approaches, Acland stresses that the council is keen to capture as much learning as it can from these first projects, as policy turns into properties.
And the council is committed to sharing these experiences, which echoes Christophers’ comment that other councils can speed up their delivery by learning from Teignbridge.
With regards to affordability, Christophers sees potential in the idea of sweat equity for Self Build as a driver for managing costs.
“The 20-30% of sweat equity that able people can put into Self Build can really drive affordability,” he says.
“Getting the deposit is often the stumbling point for much affordable housing, but if we can create an opportunity where this sweat equity is in lieu of that deposit, then it’s the first foot on the ladder.”
Although it’s not yet in a position to offer this, the insight reflects the passion that’s driven Teignbridge DC’s journey to date, a can-do attitude that’s open to new ways of thinking.
Acland refers to another route to affordability, saying that “delivering some homes to a shell stage, with options for external customisation but predominately internal choices, creates greater opportunity for plot purchasers to make further savings and develop their skills.”
But it’s Teignbridge’s local plan that’s had the biggest effect on affordability, as Christophers explains, “For every one affordable home that we produced prior to the Local Plan, we now produce 2.5 affordable homes.
“And Custom and Self Build is starting to show itself as a much more acceptable form of affordable housing in neighbourhoods.”
The experiences that Teignbridge has had engaging with the public at the planning stage have been a positive one.
The council reports that it finds that Custom and Self Build developments have a calming effect on the neighbourhoods they affect, even when they tend to include NIMBYs who are mistrustful of affordable housing per se.
“Building your own home is as much about the social capital and about people as it is about the house itself,” says Christophers.
“When existing residents understand this, they get it, and when they see local people rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in to create homes for themselves, they absolutely love it.”
Teignbridge’s dedicated neighbourhood planning officer supports towns and villages to develop community-led planning – so far 5 of its 26 communities have been through the process, with another 8 engaged in preparing a neighbourhood plan.
“And we’re finding that Custom and Self Build features heavily in the solutions that have been delivered through the community, and it can happen in every town, city and village.”
Key to the success of any council’s Custom and Self Build activities is a willingness to collaborate, something Teignbridge has a track record with.
For example,Teignbridge District Council led a study trip to the National Self Build and Renovation Centre and Graven Hill for neighbouring planners and councillors. In addition, it’s leading the piloting of a new long-term demand evidencing tool for NaCSBA and Three Dragons. This is working with its GESP (Greater Exeter Strategic Plan) partners of East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon, Devon County Council.
And in this spirit of collaboration, Teignbridge DC is more than happy for other councils to adapt or reproduce its percentage policy and Supplementary Planning Document to speed up their own Custom and Self Build delivery.
What all this demonstrates is that the Teignbridge Rule of creating a percentage policy for Custom and Self Build can be a good one for ensuring plot provision.
But it has to be a starting point, as Christophers explains: “Self Build delivers some of the civic pride to our neighbourhoods that can be missing. But it requires councils to take on a different mind-set.
“It’s not just about policy writing and leaving it to others to bring the projects to light. Housing has to be part of what you do at a council, it’s got to be part of your DNA, and you’ve got to be prepared to be active partners.”
As with all planning, councils have to look at the wider picture, both long and short-term demand, and the evidence base for their housing policies. A percentage policy plan for Custom and Self-build plots provision can be a way to manage the duties of the Right to Build registers, but to be successful they need managing as part of a larger suite of activity.
This might mean that smaller percentage sites are offset and grouped on a single development, or handed over from the developer of the main site to an SME that’s able to bring on the site. But it’s great to see Teignbridge focusing on affordability, as Custom Build can help deliver this with a bit of thought.