KEY LEARNING POINTS
- Councils that want to successfully deliver private homebuilding projects need to ensure they have strong local political support. They also need to have a strong and persuasive officer to lead their initiative
- A very clear, simple-to-understand vision is essential
- Organisations keen to deliver more private homebuilding must be willing to change their culture, treating would-be custom and self builders as valued ‘investors’ in their community
There are four important ingredients to the successful delivery of most local authority initiated private homebuilding projects – political support, good leadership, a clear vision and a willingness to adopt a new culture. These are among the first things you need to recognise, and they are often difficult to deliver unless there is a genuine commitment to change.
Almost every successful initiative has had high-level support from the local authority’s elected politicians. For example, the leader of Cherwell Council passionately championed the 1,900 home Graven Hill project in Oxfordshire. The successful initiatives promoted by Teignbridge and Plymouth have also been personally supported and promoted by their council leaders; and in Scotland, the successive leaders of Orkney Islands Council have backed its housing team’s efforts to provide low cost serviced building plots for more many years.
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Secure political backing.
Engage your senior political leaders and convince them of the merits of supporting your initiative. Remind them of the local benefits such as speeding up housing supply, building more affordable, better-designed homes and supporting the local economy
In continental Europe the support of senior politicians is seen as vital. For example in the Netherlands, where around 80 councils are now actively encouraging this form of housing the Government will not consider providing central support to councils unless there is a clear commitment from the council’s political leaders.
This is also the case in Germany where local mayors enthusiastically support the push for more private homebuilding in cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Tübingen and Freiburg, and at hundreds of smaller councils.
Please refer to the selection of case studies in this Toolkit for detailed descriptions of all of the above initiatives.
In the same way that strong political support is vital, it is also essential that the officer heading up the initiative is a good and persuasive leader too.
They need to be someone that can build a good team around them, can argue for and drive through culture change, and can garner support and commitment from those they work with to support this form of homebuilding. They will have to communicate the initiative eloquently at public gatherings, they need to be good at engaging with local people, and confident in dealing with the media (whose support is important).
A CLEAR, SIMPLE-TO-UNDERSTAND VISION
The best examples of successful initiatives have spent time, right at the beginning, working out their objectives (and the way they want to operate), and then they have set these out in a clear way that anyone can understand. A council’s Housing Strategy or Corporate Plan could be the logical place to do this.
If you are not 100% clear at the outset about what you are trying to do your initiative may drift, and people won’t really ‘get’ what it is you are aiming to achieve.
The Hague’s Six Guiding Principles
- Give people as much freedom as possible to build what they want
- Encourage diversity/variety/individuality
- Make the process as simple, consistent and transparent as possible
- Be customer-orientated (ie treat the potential private homebuilder as a valued customer)
- Focus on making it easy for individuals to do
- Aim for quality buildings and public spaces
CHANGING THE CULTURE OF YOUR ORGANISATION
Many councils face acute staffing pressures and are not always able to engage proactively with potential private homebuilders. It is also rare for councils to meet with landowners or developers to identify suitable opportunities for private homebuilding; typically this only happens when planning applications have been submitted, or when development briefs have been prepared for a site.
Some local authorities have also identified that there are internal cultural barriers to overcome. For example, planning departments that are not willing to identify suitable sites, or resist the use of Design Codes; estates teams not wanting to consider disposals of land unless they can achieve the highest value; councillors saying they want to sell land for a quick receipt instead of delivering serviced building plots; or housing teams not supporting new ways of facilitating affordable housing.
Councils that support private homebuilding initiatives may need to look at how they can address these challenges.
It is important that local authorities regard people who want to build their own homes as valued ‘investors’. Council officers often spend considerable resources and time negotiating with major landowners and larger developers who want to build or invest in their area. They now need to be prepared to engage with smaller developers and private homebuilders too, as they are likely to be investing their life’s savings in their community.
A significant challenge is to recognise that many people who want to commission a home do not fully understand the development process. Most don’t have a background in property or construction, so they are unfamiliar with the complexities of land purchase, the planning process and some of the financial issues they may face.
To succeed in driving forward an initiative councils must to be prepared to spend some time with would-be private homebuilders; they may also need to assemble suitable supplementary information.
This often requires a change of culture, with the whole team becoming more customer-focused and supportive. This can be achieved in a focused way – for example by organising information events or surgeries, providing clear information on websites and offering advice on the building consent process (as increasing numbers of councils are now doing). Councils could also consider setting up a helpline - perhaps targeted at the people on the demand Register –with an officer in the housing or planning team providing general advice at set times.
It is also important to engage with landowners to help identify suitable sites for development, and to have discussions with builders and custom build developers to better understand the private homebuilding business model and identify suitable opportunities. This can be done as part of the local and neighbourhood planning process, or by holding more focused discussions with groups of local builders and developers.
Internal barriers can also be overcome by staging information events across the various teams in the council; local authorities could also consider arranging a seminar to brief key councillors. Councils may also want to consider setting up an integrated delivery team that includes representatives from across the relevant services.
Changing the way a council engages and facilitates this form of development is challenging but necessary – from the research we have undertaken it typically takes many months, sometimes years to convince colleagues that supporting private homebuilding is worthwhile.
How do you do it?
The people who have made a big impact all say that it takes perseverance, and a lot of one-on-one time with the in-house team, reminding colleagues of the benefits of supporting more custom and self build homes.
- Early ‘successes’ can be very powerful – consider facilitating a small pilot project, perhaps involving a few homes, to showcase what can be achieved. Where a pilot project provides a home for a young family that has been struggling for a long time this can be very effective. So, consider arranging for your colleagues to meet the young family so they can hear their story
- Spell out your commitment in your Vision document - include a clear heading in your Vision or Guiding Principles that identifies your proactive approach to supporting projects and customers. For example you could say you are committed to treating private homebuilders as valued clients, and you could then get this printed on posters and hang them up wherever they may be needed
- Consider using external experts to train staff in customer relations. If you are recruiting new staff consider appointing people who have the right mindset/philosophy from the start
- Arrange a study trip to see exemplar projects in the UK and Europe – there is nothing more powerful than taking your team to see some of the best initiatives which are emerging in the UK and inspirational projects in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium or France. They will then appreciate the real impact that can be achieved if they treat private homebuilders as valued customers. The Right to Build Task Force can provide advice on which projects to visit and is developing a programme of facilitated visits. Please contact the Task Force for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organise an away day
Invite colleagues who are committed to the initiative to thrash out a clear Vision and your Guiding Principles. Don’t make this complicated or long-winded. Avoid jargon. Anyone should be able to fully understand what you’re trying to do. The shorter and clearer, the better
Plan for culture change
This might mean allocating a budget to develop new skills, increased cross-team working, and recruiting new staff who have specific experience. It could also mean spending more time with your colleagues to explain the culture change you want to achieve and mentoring them so they adapt
The following Case Studies offer useful insight into the issues discussed in this Briefing Note:
The NaCSBA Research & Development Programme is funded by the Nationwide Foundation and aims to promote the self-build and custom build sector as an affordable route into housing for a greater number of people in the UK.
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