16 Oct 2017

What custom build can deliver for planning and housing teams

What custom build can deliver for planning and housing teams

Beyond the legal duty, what can custom build deliver for your council’s housing department as a route to home ownership? What are the pressure points and considerations that you need to be aware of as a housing or planning professional? And what can it deliver for you as an authority?

Custom Build legislation

As a build route, custom build is firmly established in legislation. By now, all English authorities should be hosting a Right To Build Register, and planning departments have a duty to permission enough serviced plots for those on the registers, within three years of them signing up. Take a look at the wider legal context for custom build, here. In October 2017 NaCSBA found that there were 33,000 signed up to the registers.

Serviced-plots for custom build

Under the Right To Build, councils must supply serviced plots, but beyond this there is no insistence on a model or route to delivery.

The reality is that what we refer to as custom build operates on a wide spectrum, rather than just being pigeonholed in a single term. Find out more about the definitions, here.

Self and Custom Build Registers

The expectations for the Right To Build Registers are clearly set out by Government.

Key questions for your council’s Right To Build Register
  • Should your planning department host the register itself;
  • Should you require a local connection test (in which case you must run a two-part register);
  • Should you market your register; and,
  • Should you charge for your register?

Find out more about Right To Build challenges for local government, here.

With everyone starting from the same entry level point, these questions echo repeated conversations taking place in local authorities across the country.

Right to Build

NaCSBA’s Right To Build Portal

Most especially, how do you provision the demand and, if you market, how do you manage the increased demand this might generate?

Innovating in housing supply is a slow and painful process, as councils and stakeholders inevitably learn as they go. And with all of this, the clock is ticking towards the rolling three-year deadline.

Read my Editor’s Blog about whether or not you should market your register.

What is Local Government’s response?

Proactive councils have embraced the custom build challenge with a range of initiatives to satisfy demand.

Some have created policy-led solutions, such as the Teignbridge Rule requiring 5% self-build plots on larger developments.

Others are looking to use garden towns and villages as part of the solution, such as Aylesbury Woodlands, while still other are engaging with community and action groups to bring forward serviced plots.

Elsewhere, entrepreneurial authorities are creating synergies with neighbouring councils. These hubs pool resources and talent, as well as prevent costly delays in individual practice.

Equally, many authorities are unsure how to proceed, and are being exceedingly cautious in their approach. But custom homes represent an opportunity, and councils should be prepared to see it this way.


Beyond the legal requirement, custom and self-build has significant advantages that should be viewed as distinct wins.

It’s worth remembering that the sector is about additionality – custom build is not expected to replace volume building.

Rather it is a way of meeting additional demand for an alternative to the mainstream offering, with a focus on getting more homes built as part of the solution to the housing crisis.

1 Diversification of housing supply

Custom build is a means of broadening your housing offering. It puts power into the hands of individuals, giving them choice that the mainstream market fails to deliver.

This can empower people to build homes to suit their needs, for example multi-generational living, downsizing, supported living, live/work, community living and a host more.

2 Community support

By its nature, custom build forges strong community links as residents are on the same journey together. It also tends to have a high focus on placemaking, which is built-in from the start.

In terms of resistance to new development, custom built homes can often be more palatable for local residents, where volume building might be resisted.

For example, legacy landlords like the idea of having truly committed individuals living on their old land.

In addition, residents appreciate that it often relies on nearby SME contractors, and so provides local employment.

What’s more, there’s evidence that custom homes are of better quality than many mainstream offerings, and that their owners stay in them longer than people tend to in a spec built home.

This is because these builders have invested more time and energy into their home from the start, tailoring it to their needs.

This all makes it hugely appealing compared to mass market offerings.


Custom homes in Almere, The Netherlands

3 Empowering minority groups

For some councils, supporting custom and self-build offers a way of engaging with groups who might otherwise be marginalised. This is especially so when cohousing and Community Land Trust projects are brought into the mix.

There are projects supporting ex-servicemen, older women, limited-income families and a host of more general groups that want to determine how they live and interact on a very local community level.

Often these can be as simple as shared facilities, such as a garden or guest accommodation, that keeps prices down and engenders a close support network that combats isolation.

Find out more about the Older Women’s Cohousing Group, here.

4 Employment opportunities   

Government has put the resurrection of the SME building sector well and truly on the agenda, and councils know that custom homes and SMEs make a great pairing.

As well as being the ideal size for custom build, SME builders offer local employment opportunities, as explained above, and tend to have well-established links with the communities they operate in.

In addition to this, many SMEs take on local apprentices or training opportunities, which most councils will look favourably on.

In fact, some councils have made this a condition of the planning being granted on a site.

5 Revenue stream

Times are changing for councils, and once again they are shifting to being house builders, albeit often through supporting housing associations.

But more than this, we’re beginning to see a change in the expectation that councils should move towards being more self-funding.

Consequently, entrepreneurial councils, like Cherwell DC, are using custom build as a way of generating income for themselves.


There is a misconceived notion that giving free rein to custom builders will results in streets of crazily-designed houses that will detract locally and decimate resale values.

Some of the more press-worthy examples from Europe can fuel this concern, but the reality is that the majority of the European schemes are far more sober than many would expect. For example, trendy Ijburg custom build site (lead picture) has become a popular area for families.

Maintaining design control

But there’s a simple system of control available to planners that offers reassurances to conservative councils and worried neighbours alike.

Most custom sites now use a Design Code and Plot Passports as a means of managing developments so that they reflect some form of the vernacular. This is a useful way of kerbing some of the more extreme designer tendencies that councils are concerned about with custom build.

Graven Hill plot passport's first page

A Graven Hill plot passport’s first page, detailing the essentials for each plot

Design Codes enable planners to establish a set of parameters for a customised site. Plot Passports set expectations on an individual house level. Both of these can use a material palette of options, especially for exteriors, that still offer choice but in a more managed way.

With these, planners can ensure that a streetscape sticks to set volumes, heights, materials and so on, while still offering residents plenty of choice that creates a more engaging neighbourhood.

This also reassures other would-be purchasers that the whims of a neighbour won’t adversely affect their own resale value later on.

Larger sites, such as Graven Hill, also use zoning to create distinct areas, some with a more relaxed and some with more-controlled design parameters, meaning greater choice for consumers.

Build out clauses also offer reassurances that sites will be completed within a reasonable time frame, too.

Factoring in affordability

Many local authorities struggle with the concept of bringing on custom build on their own land, over the question of obtaining best value, which logically dictates open-market sale or auction.

But custom build offers numerous routes to affordability. This may be with the inclusion of smaller products, such as Graven Hill’s Coach House products, or the inclusion of shell or self-finish products.

While using sweat-equity to finish these types of homes does save money, it raises issues in that it is a route typically associated with the most willing and able in society. And affordability should be universal.

Measures such as discounted plots, or exception sites can offer solutions to affordability, especially if clauses are included to ensure the land is help in perpetuity to ensure affordability for future generations.

Community Land Trusts and cohousing projects often retain the freehold to help guarantee affordability carries on. However, new leasehold laws could impact their ability to maintain control of the land.

CLT charity says leasehold reform must exempt cohousing projects

But all these models needs specialist facilitators or enablers to help them. This could be on a local government level within a housing or planning department, or through the requirement that projects work with, and are supported by, third-party advisors.

Ring-fencing custom build provisions in planning

There is a question mark about custom build and additionality. On one hand, if you’re only supplying custom build plots from land that would have been permissioned for housing anyway, then you’re not creating any additional residences.

This is, after all, is the reason for the Government’s endorsement of custom build from the start.

Alternatively, if you do permission custom build land in addition to other sites, especially the exception or windfall sites referenced in the Housing White Paper, how do you ensure that it is indeed custom build that actually gets built on it?

What we don’t want to see is a replication of the whole affordability/viability debacle that sees volume housebuilders reneging on their affordable commitment once planning is achieved.

One way to guarantee this is to stipulate that permission falls away if the homes are not built, rather than simply revert to spec-build housing permission.

But the jury is out on the best way to proceed.

Solutions for planning white space

As a tool in wider development planning, custom build can be used to create house building in areas of planning white space. This was the approach used at Aylesbury Woodlands, for its 165 custom build plots.

Effectively, custom build permission can be used on sites that might be of limited interest to volume builders – again for viability concerns.

These might be site specific, such as being in a flood plain, Brownfield, sloping sites, costly infrastructure, areas of restricted economic value and so on.

When paired with larger planning schemes and drivers, such as Enterprise Zones or Garden Communities, custom build can be a way to create traction and dynamism on a site.

Right To Build Task Force support

The result of all of this is that many councils are left wondering how to proceed with provisioning their own plots for people on their registers.

Should they permission their own council-owned land, if they even have any, or look to permission smaller sites as a trial to cut their teeth on?

Alternatively, should they think bigger, and focus on the potential of Garden Towns and Villages as a route to custom homes?

NaCSBA’s Task Force is able to help with this, as it offers a tailored approach to supporting a range of stakeholders, supporting them to  bring on custom build.

It’s based on a Dutch model that helped double the size of their self- and custom build sector over three years, and it’s geared up to working with local authorities, as well as a range of stakeholders.

Find out how more about the Right To Build Task Force’s work here, including what the local government discounts are.


How to engage with the Right To Build Task Force

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