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.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.