‘I want to build a house but I can’t get a plot’

Rob MatsonImage copyright
Rob Matson

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Rob says the process has been “incredibly frustrating”

Like many other would-be self-builders, Rob Matson from Oxted in Surrey has done plenty of research into what it would take to build a family home.

The last piece in the jigsaw is finding a plot.

He was hopeful when in 2016 the law was changed – making councils in England obliged to keep a register of those wanting to self-build, and provide enough plots to help them do so.

Under the Right to Build rules, councils in England have three years to grant development permission for enough plots to meet the demand on their registers.

But there are signs councils are making things harder.

Rob, 53, says his case has made no progress – and with months left before that time is up, he’s losing faith that he’ll get the opportunity to build his own home.

“It’s incredibly frustrating. We’re in private rented accommodation and want to move as soon as possible,” he says.

“We’re not after something like Grand Designs, we’re ordinary people who want to build an ordinary house.

“We’re already looking at properties elsewhere and considering other options. But at the same time, the law says the council should be making plots available.”

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Since the change in the law in 2016, the government has spent £32.2m supporting councils in England to deliver their new responsibilities.

However, roughly a fifth of local authorities in England said that they were not fulfilling their legal duty to provide enough self-build plots to meet demand on their local registers. This was in response to a Freedom of Information request from the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSB).

The association’s chief executive, Andrew Baddeley-Chappell, says it has also found that a growing number of councils are doing things that discourage people from signing up.

Examples include charging a fee to join the register and requiring proof of a connection to the local area.

“These things are technically allowed”, says Mr Baddeley-Chappell, “but the cumulative effect is that it is acting as a barrier to people signing up.”

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One example is Wandsworth council in London, which saw the number of people on its register fall from 686 to just 13 after they introduced measures including a fee of £150. With some councils charging no fees at all, it leaves those wanting help to self-build facing a postcode lottery.

Mr Matson’s council, Tandridge District Council, introduced a fee of £100 to be on the register in 2018.

“It’s not unreasonable to pay a fee,” he says, “but I’d like to know what it is I’m paying for.”

Tandridge District Council says it charges a fee as it has to “make sure the applicant has a genuine connection to the local area and that they are in a position to develop a property”.

“We are looking at our own land assets to identify plots” the council added, and said it would make applicants on its self-build register aware when the plots become available.

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Rates of self-building in England are already far behind other European countries. More than 80% of homes in Austria are self-built, and the figure is around 60% in France. In England, 7-10% of new homes are self-built.

The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto pledged to at least double the number of self-build homes by 2020 – then thought to be between 10-12,000 a year – as part of plans to address the lack of affordable housing.

The new legislation was supposed to help achieve that, but the NaCSB estimates that those numbers had only risen to about 13,000 in 2019.

Mr Baddeley-Chappell believes the target wasn’t unrealistic – and could have brought much needed competition and innovation into the housing market.

“Had the legislation worked as it was intended to, it could have been achieved,” he says. “We can’t understand why local authorities wouldn’t want more, and better homes delivered in their area.”

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The Local Government Association says that “councils are committed to building homes with the right infrastructure that the country needs and are supportive of Right to Build as one way of achieving that”.

It adds that “individual councils work with their communities to ensure that the local area’s housing requirements are met in the most effective way.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We are clear that councils must support residents who wish to build their own homes.

“Around 12,000 plots suitable for self-build have been granted planning permission since we changed the rules requiring councils to support those who want to build their own home – an important contribution as we strive to deliver the million homes needed by the end of this parliament.”