At the end of January I gave a public presentation of the results from the first two stages of the research project (you can view the project Prezi here). This was an attempt to give a sense of the current state of the selfbuild market, and to understand how it is influenced and structured by the wider field of housing procurement and the British housing market as well as giving some insights into the characteristics of selfbuilders and potential selfbuilders. In many ways, this lays the foundations for the remainder of the study moving towards the development of a sociology of selfbuild in Britain.
Today, I would like to comment a little bit on the current structure of the selfbuild market in Britain today, particularly its entanglement with the wider housing crisis. This comment is developed through my reflections on interviews I conducted with industry professionals and government stakeholders, and gives an insight into the context and conditions in which custom build as a unique product is being promoted and marketed in Britain. My focus on this echoes the energy with which this is being promoted by the self build industry more generally, with significant backing from NaSBA. It has been made clear to me that the current and ongoing housing crisis coupled with the impacts of the economic crisis offers the potential for new forms of housing provision and new (and smaller) housing developers to put their toes in the water of the housing market. This is backed, at the moment, by government support through the Custom Build Homes Investment Fund with further encouragement for selfbuild offered in the National Planning Policy Framework which places the onus of local authorities to measure demand for housing including demand for self built housing. Perhaps this is unsurprising in light of Duncan and Rowe’s comment in their 1993 article Self-provided housing: the first world’s hidden housing arm:
In periods of economic difficulty and affordability problems in housing, self-provision often becomes a topic of increasing interest to governments (p. 1338).
A little more detail is required in order to understand why now the time would be ripe for this promotion. The first thing to note is that custom build is not a new product; it is a mode of housing procurement that is extremely common in other parts of the world – the example that is often given by industry professionals is Homeruskwartier, Almere. Some interviewees also stressed that this is not the first time that it has been promoted in Britain, but for many reasons, at the time it did not become widespread. So what about the timing now? Listening to industry professionals, there is a sense that the housing crisis – understood in terms of lack of supply as well as lack of quality housing production – provides an opportunity for custom build to enter the market and to become a significant player within it, offering a demand-led product that runs counter to the supply-led housing that characterises volume housing in Britain. But the wider context of the economic crisis and its impact on volume housebuilding also plays a role; with finance for large project more and more difficult to secure, there is a need to re-vision how housebuilding in Britain is financed. Custom build, which introduces customer finance into the equation at an early stage in the process may be one way of skirting around this problem. Of course, none of this will be successful without significant public interest and demand to prove custom build as a concept. The current promotion is part of ongoing educational activities aimed at bringing custom build into the market, into the consciousness of potential homeowners and also reducing the risk so that potential stakeholders (e.g. banks and other financial institutions) might consider financing this in the future. Government support for custom build is therefore about stimulating the market.
It’s early days; the renewed interest in custom build as a form of housing provision in Britain and the support of industry professionals and the government is promising. Whether custom build can deliver housing that corresponds to the values that people place on housing remains in question. The focus on making customised housing available to wider portions of the population is one dimension of this, but there are also questions about the profits made from housing assets that have become so much part of the housing culture in Britain and long-term affordability; models of sweat equity have often been used as a way of passing on housing equity to selfbuilding households, but with the involvement of facilitating/enabling intermediaries are there ways that this profit margin to households can be maintained? Duncan and Rowe (1993) were sceptical about whether self-provided housing (in its various forms) would ever be accessible to wide proportions of the population; in their review of self-provision in several European countries, they found that this was a housing option that was predominantly taken up by middle-class families. A real challenge with the current rolling out of custom build in Britain will be whether it can engage the wide proportion of the population that it intends, or whether its uptake will be restricted to getting young middle-class professionals and families, who find themselves in a situation where they can’t (otherwise) afford to enter the property market, onto the ladder. This will be a fine line to walk. Reliant on the existing housing market, custom build runs the risk of reproducing the housing inequalities already rife in the British housing market so persuasively identified and discussed by Danny Dorling.
My final point, while undeveloped, is that while it is clear that the development of a custom build market is the big story at present, there are other stories that proceed quietly in the background. These stories focus on a dimension of selfbuild that is often overlooked in the predominant image of individualised housing widely circulated. They focus on collective modes of self-building that may or may not lead to legal property ownership. Instead, the focus is on the social values of selfbuild, particularly what it does for the people building their own homes (whether these are for ownership or rent) and whether this translates into a sense of community. It is important that these stories are not eclipsed by the current focus on custom build.