If Britain wants more self-build housing, we need to change its planning system

Self-builders in Cornwall. Image: Getty.

Doing it yourself is hardly unusual in Britain, from home improvement to punk music. But we’re markedly less used to building our own homes than the rest of Europ, despite that predilection for tackling our interiors ourselves. Self-build represents a far smaller proportion of house construction in the UK (about 10 per cent) than in most of Europe (over 50 per cent) or the USA (around 45 per cent).

This isn’t some nebulous trait specific only to us quirky exceptional Brits. After all, we have a history of doing it here: many Georgian, Victorian villas, and most thatched cottages were self-built. Bath’s iconic Royal Crescent was custom-built. One architect designed the frontages, whilst each owner got other architects to design the home behind the façade.

There’s no lack of demand, either. Ipsos MORI has shown that one in seven Britons expect to look into building their own home, a figure of around 7m. Additionally, people are hardly head over heels in love with the housing offered mainly by larger house builders. New builds are not popular with more than twice as many people preferring an older home (49 per cent) to a new build home (19 per cent).

But it’s hard to do. The National Self-Build Association cite the “the availability of land”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the DCLG Select Committee and others agree.

But we at Create Streets think it is a bit more than that and not quite so simple. After all, the amount of land in every country doesn’t change (apart from the Netherlands where they will keep reclaiming it from the sea). And whilst Britain is crowded compared to most, many regions aren’t and both Belgium and the Netherlands have more people per square kilometre.

Where Britain does differ is in the rather odd way we do our planning. It is crucial to understand that in historic and comparative terms we have a very curious approach to permitting (or refusing) development. Other than a few ‘permitted developments’ there is no right for the landowner to develop their own land – unlike, for example, Germany where there is a constitutional right to do so.

Local Plans are also much weaker. They are policy documents not regulatory documents, which influence but do not control what can and cannot be built – and, as you probably know, viability tests can be (and are) used to ignore them.

Finally, the primary permission that is needed to build something is a planning permission unlike the rest of Europe (other than Ireland) where a building permit is the main sign off you need, checking that you comply with the (more powerful) local plan. There, the right to develop is regulated, very often with greater clarity about what is permissible.

This matters because the higher level of theoretical control and lower level of permitted clarity increases planning risk. This poses a major barrier to entry to self-builders, smaller developers and other third sector developers.

It is no accident that the UK has consistently had a more concentrated development sector, with a systemically lower proportion of self-build and SMEs than most countries. Britain has a planning system in which each new site is contested.

The politics is ‘downstream’ not ‘upstream’. This means nobody is quite sure what will end up being built on any site. This alarms and motivates NIMBYs. But it also isn’t good for anyone who wants to build on land, including self-builders.

More planning risk is, in relative terms, good for larger housebuilders, however. With their huge resources they are better able to take those risks. And they push it further – they overpay for land, knowing they can use the argument of viability to make sure they can cut corners on affordability and appearance, or build higher than the council and communities want (sometimes at greater densities than research suggests is beneficial to wellbeing). Smaller groups or individuals, the kinds that might be interested in self-building, can’t get a look in.

In fact this should not be a surprise. The 1947 planning settlement was in part designed to make it hard for ‘selfish and anti-social’ self-builders (known in the 1930s as ‘plotlanders’) to build homes on plots they had bought.

There are numerous case studies from abroad that could form the blueprint for a British approach to self-build housing. They include the German ‘Baugruppe’ model, Japan’s factory-built model and the USA’s ‘stick home’ model. But these all rely on greater clarity for the self-builder on what is, and is not, acceptable so as to control ‘planning risk’. 


The best known example of such a policy is probably Almere, a Dutch city that is re-discovering self-build housing. The city designated a zone of rural land and drew up a design code with rules on construction, irrigation, agriculture and even road connections.

Within this framework, individuals who purchased a plot were totally free to develop their own plot of land to their own specifications and needs. This is not small-scale or tokenistic, but a significant part of the growth of the fifth largest Dutch city.

Of course it is possible to custom-build (i.e. self-build at scale) within the current system. But it takes a lot of work from a council and developer. In Almere ,individuals can purchase a plot designated by the local authority. When they have a mortgage, the buyer is at liberty to customise their home from a wide variety of different “ready-made” homes, many designed by in-house architects all of which are deliverable in Almere.

Developr Igloo’s self-build site in Heartlands, Cornwall, uses six designs, each of which is by a different architectural practice. Purchasers can choose from these six, as well as a tailored approach to internal layouts and finishes. However despite all the work that council and developer have put in there is, still a need to apply for planning permission on a plot by plot basis. Pre-approval has got to become much easier.

What we need is some predictability. There are steps in the right direction, such as the requirement in the new Draft London Plan for councils to create Design Codes for small sites. These can help give the certainty that allows self-builders to get hold of the land needed to get (self)building. The new draft National Planning Policy Framework has also supported more design codes and offered consultation on permitted development. Good. We are getting there. But it is slow work.

Self-build can work in the UK today. But it is not as easy as it should be. Throwing money at the problem won’t resolve it. We need to give greater clarity to self builders (and SMEs) about what they can and cannot build – just as they have in most of Europe and much of the US. Without that supporting self-build is just pushing water up hill.

Kieran Toms is a researcher and urban designer at Create streets.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.