This month the first Right To Build Task Force Expo took place to an enthusiastic audience with gold-plated endorsement from Housing and Planning Minister Alok Sharma. And the Right To Build Register featured prominently.
It was a thought provoking and informative event, packed with attendees eager to absorb as much as they could to help them bring on custom build.
During the afternoon workshops I sat in on a DCLG-led group aimed at planners and housing professionals, with a focus on promoting your Right To Build Register.
One of the burning issues was whether or not a council should be marketing its Right To Build Register. In this matter, should they be proactive or reactive?
This presented an interesting conundrum. And not least in that the handful of local government representatives in attendance probably represented the most enthusiastic and proactive authorities local to Aylesbury.
So if these enthusiasts were unsure, what does it say about those councils who are already somewhat reticent to engage with the Right To Build?
Of those who mentioned their own registers, the smallest had as few as 30 signed up, while most had between 100-200 on their registers. And there were concerns about how to proceed with provisioning these with plots in the three-year time frame, without encouraging more people to sign up.
Fortunately, this is precisely the sort of issue that the Task Force is here to help with, as it tailors its advice local authorities’ circumstances – a custom approach to provisioning custom homes.
Government knows this, and the expectation is that the Task Force will emulate the success of the Dutch model upon which it’s based. Over there, it successfully doubled the size of The Netherlands’s self and custom build sector in three years.
But there is an issue with this in that we have a huge number of councils trying to establish how to forge ahead with the registers countrywide. And regardless of whether they are marketing them or not, the clock is ticking.
Clearly, the Task Force can’t help 100 councils at a time, even if the desire was there in the first place.
But the concept of whether to market your Right To Build Register or not is an interesting one. Building, as we know, is a slow burn, and many councils that spoke up at the workshop were interested in bringing on smaller sites, below 50 units mostly.
For some this was because they wanted to test out their first approach to custom and self build housing, while for other it realistically reflected parcels of land they had easy access to.
Although they have several years to do deliver these plots, the numbers on their registers are an ever present reminder of the pressure to supply plots.
Key questions around the Right To Build Register included:
how do you stop multiple registrations in the same family,
how do you stop people building consecutively to create profit,
how do you ring-fence custom plots so they go to the people who need them, and
do you need to supply additional plots for those who don’t want to build on those that have been provisioned?
The nature of a custom build means it’s very personal to people’s circumstances. So while on a county-wide register, many will have a fixed idea of where they want to build.
This could be down to a range of factors, such as location (especially in large counties), local transport connections or a preference for an urban, suburban or rural setting. This means you could be provisioning plots that people don’t want.
So just how do you keep all of these elements balanced?
Around the table the consensus was that most did not want to publicise their registers at this point. This was mainly due to their concerns about how to proceed to provide land for the existing members of the public already signed up, let alone new sign-ups.
It’s not that they were against self and custom build as a route to home ownership – these local government members represent the most enthusiastic out there. Rather, there was genuine concern over how to progress.
And of course, underlying this were the usual issues of best value for land, how to get to scale and how to factor in affordability.
Unfortunately, there is no shot in the arm for this. Just like custom build isn’t a silver bullet for the housing market, there is no one-size-fits all approach to provisioning plots.
What’s interesting though, was that the take from DCLG was that there was no benefit in hiding your registers. The fact that they exist is already a catalyst to action, so whether you’re provisioning 10 or 100 there will be a way to do it. So go ahead and market!
However, for my point of view, it’s imperative that we market the registers – as I wrote previously, Build it and they will come! The more people on the registers, the more the message will get out to the general public that custom build is a right and a choice – and it’s vital they start to understand this.
Greater numbers on the registers mean that more people will start to understand, and relate to, the term custom build – and this is vital for the sector to survive, let alone grow.
For councils, as we all embark on this journey, there should be a more open, entrepreneurial spirit. The reality is that local authorities will have to learn as they go, but this can be made easier by sharing information locally and having a progressive attitude to working in hubs. Synergies created now will help de-risk the future.
Councils should be free to take risks and learn from challenges as they happen, with greater transparency surrounding this. This is precisely the recommendation of the New Local Government Network earlier this year, saying that councils should be less risk adverse.
But one thing is for sure, I would advise every council to keep an eye on the Right To Build Task Force’s website and Custom Build Strategy, to guarantee they don’t miss any Task Force expo happening close to them – there are 12 more to come over the next year. Quite simply, they represent the fastest route to best practice!