15 May 2018

Enhabit’s John Palmer on encouraging Custom and Self-build in Neighbourhood Plans

Enhabit’s John Palmer on encouraging Custom and Self-build in Neighbourhood Plans

A certified Passivhaus consultant, SAP Assessor and BREEAM Assessor, engineer John Palmer is Managing Director of Enhabit, a low energy construction consultancy. He led the Petersfield Neighbourhood Plan project team from 2012 to 2016, which includes custom build land and had considerable community-led input.

Neighbourhood Plans offer local communities a great opportunity to shape the development of their towns and villages.  They can influence just about everything from business, accessibility and parking to green infrastructure and sustainability. However, typically, the most contentious and difficult aspects of a Neighbourhood Plan relate to the allocation of new housing.

Contentious housing

It is mainly for this reason that Neighbourhood Planning is not for the faint hearted. There will be some people who will support new housing, but few will support it near their home.

Yet, allocations need to be made and thus the planning process needs to be comprehensive, inclusive and transparent to ensure that people understand how the allocations have been derived and be reassured that they are the right choice for that particular area.

This is now a fairly well trodden path with most Neighbourhood Plans allocating specific sites for development. However, less widespread is the consideration of Custom and Self Build housing.

However, it has been done. The Petersfield Neighbourhood Development Plan (PNDP), adopted in January 2016 included two sites, with space for up to 112 dwellings, which were allocated specifically for Custom and Self Build.

People like Custom and Self Build

The PNDP Project Group introduced the idea of Custom and Self Build fairly early on in the process. Thus, it was featured in most of the public engagement events.

It was clear from the start that, whilst housing in general was extremely contentious, the concept of custom and self build was almost universally supported.

When the group suggested that Custom and Self Build housing be restricted to people with a local connection, it was wholeheartedly embraced by the community.

So, in a process that sometimes seemed like there was no way you could please everybody, we managed to find a housing policy which just about everybody felt they could support.

Finding suitable sites

Getting the community to support the policy was, however, only the first step. The next hurdle was to work out how to allocate some specific sites. This is where it got a bit more difficult.

The problem is that any unusual caveat or restriction on the development of a site will increase risk and therefore reduce market value.

Thus, the allocation of any site which developers had already identified, and so may have a pre-existing expectation of development, would be strongly resisted by the developer or landowner.

At this point, the advice the group received was that ‘it couldn’t be done’. There was too much risk and uncertainty in this sort of development and therefore we couldn’t include it in the plan.

However, given the amount of public support, the group weren’t ready to give up. If the allocation of Custom and Self-Build was an untested model, then, if we could de-risk it then there was a chance that we could convince the examiner that it was worth including in the plan.

Managing expectations and risk

We therefore looked for sites which had no previous expectation of development and also ensured that our core market housing allocations were sufficient to meet the housing allocation required by the local plan.

Thus, we were then able to go to landowners and ask if they were happy for their land to be put forward as Custom and Self Build… with the alternative that their land was not included at all.

Unsurprisingly, even though the impact of the Custom and Self Build caveat on the market value was not clear, all the landowners agreed to have their land put forward.

Assessing demand

So, we now had strong public support, a policy that we thought would work and that was backed up with some realistic sites. However, strong support isn’t evidence of demand. Were there actually people out there who wanted to do this? Or would the sites simply sit vacant, a good idea that nobody wanted?

We therefore set about demonstrating that there was genuine demand for this sort of housing model.

As this was before the introduction of the Right to Build registers, we set up our own online register on the Neighbourhood Plan website. Without really doing any advertising, we quickly got over 40 people who expressed strong interest.

We then looked at the NaCSBA 2014 survey which sought to understand how many people were interested in Self-building and, as part of that how many were ready to start within a year.

When extrapolated to the Petersfield area, these figures showed that over 130 people would be ready to start building in the next 12 months.

Finally, we went to the Plotfinder online service and asked them how many people in the Petersfield area were paying subscribers and actively looking for plots. The answer was 60.

Our conclusion was therefore that there were anywhere between 40 and 130 people actively looking for self-build plots in the Petersfield area. With a 15-year plan that was proposing to allocate 112 Self-build sites, this seemed like a reasonable level of demand.

Going to examination

Despite all our efforts to offer a robust case for Custom and Self Build, when we submitted the plan for examination, we suspected that this part of the plan was likely to be one of the most contentious issues.

We were right. The examiner accepted our arguments, and was impressed with the level of public support. However, developers and landowners whose sites had not been included in the plan did their best to discredit the Custom and Self-build elements with the intent of having their own market housing sites included instead.

We stuck to our guns and our argument that we had de-risked the process by already meeting the required allocations with market housing won through. The Custom and Self-build housing remained in the plan and will be a welcome extra on top of the market allocation.

In conclusion

Neighbourhood Planning is a tough process which is still finding its feet. As it is so specific to your local area, it provides a great opportunity to shape your area the way the community wants.

Custom and Self-build housing is something that just about everybody supports and is something that can be included alongside conventional market housing allocations.



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