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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.