Self Build and Custom House Building

24th October 2014


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Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I represent constituencies with an equivalent demography and similar levels of deprivation and dysfunction. My constituency could be characterised as seven enormous former council estate. It might seem odd, therefore, for me to begin by praising

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the Bill put forward by my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and mentioning Kevin McCloud and his programme “Grand Designs”. I do that because he has popularised the concept of self-build and because it happens to be my favourite television programme. When Kevin McCloud came to the House of Commons to speak to the self-build group, I remember him being deeply unimpressed when I showed him that my phone ring-tone was the “Grand Designs” theme tune. More seriously, however, he has put the concept of individual self-build very much into people’s minds, so we owe him and the show a continuing debt because it opens up a line of thinking.

The line of thinking for me is not building a £1 million house in a beautiful green belt, but, to connect back to my opening sentence, that self-build, custom build or community build could be one of the answers for areas such as my constituency and that represented by Madam Deputy Speaker—places that linger at the bottom of the league table on so many statistical indices, whether it be, as in my case, sending the fewest number of young people to university, or having double the number of single households or double the national average of the number of children entitled to free school meals. I am trying to juxtapose these two extremes, and I think we can do this, which is why I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, the chair of the self-build, custom-build and many other builds in the title of the group. If we are extending the title further, I would like to add, in brackets, community-build, because that is where we can bridge into the less affluent areas where the need for housing is just as important. By dint of personal energy and effort, my hon. Friend has raised this issue virtually single-handedly in the House, bringing us to a position whereby I understand that both the Front-Bench teams will support his Bill—quite an achievement, albeit only one of many in his illustrious parliamentary career.

Mr Spencer rose—

Mr Allen: I gladly give way to my parliamentary neighbour.

Mr Spencer: As his constituency neighbour, I am well aware of the challenges the hon. Gentleman faces in his constituency. He referred to Mr McCloud and the “Grand Designs” programme, but it strikes me that almost all those type of programmes conclude with the projects going over-budget and over-time—a demonstration of the enormous challenges of building one’s own property. Is there enough support out there from the National Self Build Association to assist people who are not of great wealth to overcome the challenges they might face in the self-build process?

Mr Allen: I am tempted, in Kevin McCloud fashion, to say, “Will I actually get to the end of this speech, and will it be done by Christmas? Let’s come back after the break and see.” More seriously, my honourable neighbour makes an important point, which I shall try to cover on the basis of what little I know about this field. It is indeed important not to look at individuals of high net worth to do the self-build, which would simply not be possible in my constituency. Rather, we should look to local partnerships, particularly including local councils. I have alluded to the experience of Berlin, to which I

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shall return, but in my own area, the superb Nottingham City Homes is the arm’s length management organisation for the former council housing stock. It is very well led, with imagination and creativity in abundance. If we can tie such organisations to people in the private sector who are prepared to help, I think it will be possible to bridge from those high-end individual self-builds into something that could have a real impact on my constituents.

I say that for another reason, too—not necessarily for the obvious housing reason. This could be a demonstration and a symbol of the fact that people in areas decimated by the decline of manufacturing who have been pulverised by the loss of employment in their communities—and, in many cases, the loss of self-respect, as well—are capable of getting up, organising and achieving something like this. That could have a really cathartic effect on those estates with which I know the hon. Gentleman is so familiar.

I pay tribute to Ted Stevens, whose name has been mentioned. Ted is not simply the chair of the National Self Build Association. One cannot come into contact with Ted without being electrocuted by the passion and desire he brings to this field. He is an inspirational character, and we were fortunate that he chose to come to Nottingham recently to convene a meeting with a number of colleagues who are interested in this field. One cannot pay for that sort of passion or buy that sort of interest and desire to spread the word. If, with the hon. Member for South Norfolk and Ted Stevens—he is no longer the chair of the association, but he is not the sort of character who is going to leave the field—we can bottle that passion, there is a real chance of doing something very significant in this field.

Let me say a little more about the specifics in relation to my own constituency, which I know the Bill’s promoter is concerned about, too. If we are to make an impact on the market, we are going to have to look at how this will impact on the former council estates, on working-class and low-income housing, which is where much of the expansion could come from. I made a point earlier about having more devolution so that local government can make some decisions rather than be the passive recipient of policies coming down the pipe from Whitehall. In my constituency, we need to enable the local authority to get on and do the job it sees fit. Peculiarly, there is too much housing in my constituency.

The project I am fortunate enough to chair in my constituency is called the rebalancing project. It is called that because we are trying to balance the fact that 95% of the constituency is covered by former council estates, with very little provided in the way of employment, training, leisure—all the things that go to make an effective community. To balance that, we have to confront the reality of being issued with housing targets that are wholly inappropriate for a constituency such as mine, and the drive in local government, when battling austerity, to sell land assets, often to people who could put a semi on a corner or a Barrett estate on a zone designated for business and enterprise, losing that land for ever. Those pressures must be considered .

We need a much more flexible system—one that is looked at locally rather than one in which all we are doing is looking to tick the boxes sent to us by the centre. If we can have that degree of flexibility, there will be room and possibilities for self-build, custom-build and community-build—breaking, in my case, this unleavened

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sea of former council housing. I put on record that this is actually very good stock—brick-built houses from the new garden city movement era, with gardens front and back and pitched roofs, with no deck access and no high rise, but which, none the less, in modern circumstances, without the employers who were around at that time, creates a large, single problem, verging on a ghetto, which we need to break down in order to create communities and neighbourhoods on a more human scale, based on a balance of employment, skills and training.

I was inveigled by the hon. Gentleman to go to Berlin to have a look at some of the self-build or community-build there. It was one of the best bits of inveigling I have ever experienced. This was not “Grand Designs” as a concept. Some of the buildings we saw were converted. There was a beautiful former school which had been made into a wonderful set of apartments for a broad-based mix of people, with plenty of facilities on site. The other buildings that we saw were flats, sets of housing rather than individual housing. That visit opened my eyes to the fact that it was not necessary to do a one-off in a green field. I realised that this was relevant in an urban context and relevant to more than just an individual, and that it could start to involve a more collective approach that could be the answer in areas such as mine.

Mr Bacon: The hon. Gentleman mentioned our visit to the school in Karlshorst, in east Berlin. That meant a great deal to me, not least because in a different incarnation, probably more than 20 years ago, I worked in Karlshorst as a teacher. I used to pass Russian generals walking their dogs every morning, just after the Berlin wall had come down. The most interesting thing about the Karlshorst school was the existence of a supervised community consisting of eight or 10 families and 10 children, many of whom were orphans or had been removed from their parents. The children had adult role models to whom they could relate—apart from their own step-parents—who created for them a new, normal environment that they could not possibly have experienced anywhere else.

Mr Allen: When I was in Berlin, I had the impression that the concept of group-build was déclassé. In the United Kingdom, the aristocrats have the big houses, the middle classes have their hideaways in Islington—or its equivalent in my city, and no doubt in other cities—and everyone else seems to have acquired the “better builder” kit from one of the volume builders. And then there is social housing.

In the United Kingdom, there is a very rigid view, almost a “caste system” view, of what housing should be. That was totally absent in Berlin. There was fluidity. It was not a case of “We have a quota,” or “We are helping some people out,” or “We are getting a bit of a deal, some money, and because we are being allowed to build something else, we will build a bit of social housing.” That is rather what the old council estates used to be like, certainly when I was growing up in my constituency. There was no thought that such housing was strictly limited to a specific group. Now, however, we have almost come to accept that that is the way that it has to be in the United Kingdom. I think that self-build, or collective-build, or community-build, is one of the ways in which we can return to a more open market in housing, in which everyone can have a stake.

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As I have said, Berlin was quite an eye-opener for me. I discovered that 15% of all new homes there were provided by means of the group-build method. That is a big chunk of the market, and—the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong about this—I believe that the percentage is increasing, and has been increasing steadily since just after the war.

A key factor has been local government’s ability to play its part. We were told repeatedly that the precedent could not have been set if the spark had not been lit by the Berlin council and its sub-divisions, which saw group-build as a way of enabling people to run their own affairs and to make housing that they felt was appropriate, rather than housing that some other person felt was appropriate for them. They were allowed to express themselves, by which I mean not wild and wacky architectural design, but enabling people to make whatever interiors they like once the shell had been constructed. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, we went in and out of houses which were identical at first sight, but whose internal design had resulted from a tremendous amount of imagination. The customising of group-build was one of the features that I took away from that visit.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am sorry that I was not present for the beginning of the debate. I know from my time in Germany that there is not much of a tradition of owner-occupation there. Many people hire or rent their properties. Is the system that the hon. Gentleman is describing a way of helping young Germans, or Germans without much money, to enter the property market, because the cost of owning property in Germany is so much higher than it is here? That is a question, not a statement: is owning property more expensive there?

Mr Allen: I wish I were more of an expert on the British, let alone the German, housing market. However, I know that the hon. Member for South Norfolk is itching to intervene, and he may well provide me with the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Mr Bacon: I did indeed want to intervene. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we visited the houses known as “Elf Freunde”, or “11 Friends”, which is a German footballing pun. Indeed, I think that those are the houses to which he referred earlier; the ones with the tremendous variation inside. Although much of the housing that we saw in Germany had been provided by Genossenschaften, housing co-operatives, that particular project was for private sale. Four of the 11 people involved were architects who, because of rising costs in Germany, were anxious to do what many people in this country have thought about doing for years—to buy somewhere so that they would have somewhere later, rather than seeing their rent dissipate. We saw four-storey houses with huge square footage that had been built for a total cost of just over £200,000, including land and construction.

Mr Allen: I found that intervention very helpful, and I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) did as well.

What I envisage for my area is not the standard group building that we saw in Berlin, much of which was architect-driven or initiated by professional people. I

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have been encouraged by my conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and with the Minister, whom I met coincidentally earlier in the week in order to discuss another matter. They seemed to be open to the idea that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer in this instance, and that self-build can contribute to the opening up of the housing market. In Nottingham North, however, we would not start off with the professional skills that would be necessary to create something along the lines of what we saw in Berlin, but we could bring those skills to the table. We could ask the private sector to bring them to the table. We could ask individual architects and other professionals to help, we could ask local government to facilitate the project, and we could ask our wonderful Nottingham City Homes whether it might consider sponsoring it.

Nottingham is probably the last place where most people would ever think of trying to start something like this, but let us, as it were, start with the last place. As I hope to show later in my speech, if we can do it in Nottingham North, there is absolutely no reason why it cannot be facilitated by all parties—and this is a cross-party debate. There is no reason why Governments of all colours, and parties of all colours, cannot do something similar to what was done by the Germans after the last war. We could see 15%, 20%, 25% of homes in the United Kingdom being self-built, custom-built, or community-built. Some people might say that the demand does not exist, but I think that the hon. Member for South Norfolk has well and truly shot that one out of the water.

Let me now add my two penn’orth and return to the survey conducted by the National Custom & Self Build Association, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, and which I think was carried out jointly with Ipsos MORI. According to the survey, an estimated 7 million people want to adopt the self-build, communal-build route. Well, we could all say that we might like to have a go at it, but there is a further statistic: it seems that 1 million of those 7 million want to start this year. I cannot believe that they will all do so, but if there is a real desire among them, if they have a time limit in mind, if they are saying “I really want to do this”, I would love to be standing here this time next year with the foundations dug in, and Kevin saying, “Will the money run out?” I am sorry; I should be more serious about this. If 1 million people are saying that they want to get started, that is a fantastic asset for the Government and all parties. I think that if we could achieve it if at the cost of just one or two little improvements, flexibilities and discretions, building on the Bill, that would be a great step forward.

I want to finish with a little vignette about the rebalancing project in Nottingham North. We are pulling together a charity which is setting up to do a large number of things coterminous with my constituency, not least around the pre-NEETs group—14-to-17s—and also a number of key public health issues, but one of our workstreams is most definitely around housing, self-build and tenure. We were able to bring Ted Stevens to my constituency just a couple of Fridays ago and he got a fantastic group of people in the same room to brainstorm around the topic of self-build. They included the chief executive of Nottingham City Homes, Nick Murphy, private sector people such as Jon Sawyer from Igloo,

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which I understand has won the build-it award for custom-build this week—we were not aware it was even in for that competition, but congratulations to it—and people from the One Public Estate organisation, which I think resides in the Cabinet Office, or perhaps the Department for Communities and Local Government; forgive me if I am wrong, Minister.

What they are trying to do is bring land assets which are not being used fully into proper use. That includes central Government assets—I had better not name any as I am keen to have the possibility of exploiting them—and the aim is to match those with council land and property assets in the ownership of local government. That is a precious and small group of assets. We are not in the position of the hon. Member for South Norfolk of having a fairly large number of sites to look at. They are very precious and we must safeguard them to ensure they are used and maximised as much as possible.

We started to get those holders of land assets to consider self-build as an option, and that is an enormous step forward. Hon. Members in slightly better circumstances may not even understand what I am saying there, but when land is so precious and virtually all of it is built on, those small sites can be very important. Land is the key social control in an area like mine and catalysing that frees up the potential for self-build and community-build.

One of the key things Ted Stevens, Jon Sawyer and others put to us the other week was that separating the land acquisition from the build process reduces the risks for house buyers buying upfront. So in a sense what we look at then in terms of self-build is that we have housing manufacturers rather than people who need to do the whole lot of the pathway from an empty piece of land to occupied land full of happy families. Separating the land acquisition is one of the key factors and will be even more important in the British context than it is in the Dutch or the German context.

There are a lot of examples of this happening already. I do not know if it is in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, but there is a development called the Yard in Bristol, and that was pointed up as a lower income area that could benefit. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows of it? We would be looking to do something like that—building something in Nottingham similar to what they are doing in the Yard in Bristol.

Added to the people I have mentioned, we had people from urban design, not least from Nottingham Trent university, but also people who had attended the annual urban design conference in Nottingham some five or six weeks ago. I think marrying self-build, community-build and group-build with the idea of reengineering—redesigning—the urban landscape in a place like Nottingham North presents tremendous possibilities.

In order to be inventive, innovative and creative, I wish the hon. Gentleman’s Bill swift passage. What he has managed to do in getting the Bill to this stage of its progress through the Commons is superb. If he wishes, I will allow my name to go forward for the Bill Committee. There is so much to disagree about in housing, and I hope that the dogfight continues, but I also hope that on this issue my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on the Opposition Front Bench and the Minister, who I have had so many positive dealings with, on the Government

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side, and all of us can say that if we can give self-build, communal-build and group-build a fair wind, we will be doing something that will bring immense joy and happiness to many families, not least those in my constituency of Nottingham North.