We catch up with Karen Curtin, interim managing director of the Graven Hill self and custom build development in Oxfordshire:
What kinds of opportunities are there available at Graven Hill (GH) in terms of the types of homes that can be built?
We have planning permission for up to 1,900 homes on the site, near Bicester, of which 30% have been allocated as affordable housing. There’ll be a mix of apartments, terraces, mews houses, detached and semi-detached dwellings, ranging from one- to six-bed opportunities.
Our current plan is that 44% of sales will be golden brick sites – this is where you buy the land and foundations from the GH company so you don’t have to pay VAT on the land sale. If we just sold you the land, then we’d have to charge 20% VAT.
If we sell it along with what’s called the first interest in the property – the slab, the foundations – then that sale is exempt from that tax. Tailored turnkey projects will make up 14% of the plots and we’ll be providing a shell-build service for another 14%.
Will all of the opportunities be targeted towards self builders, or will there be prospects for collective projects as well?
We’d very much like to have collaborative schemes on the site, and we’re already in preliminary discussions with are couple of groups who are interested in the later phases of the plots we’re releasing. We haven’t got any projects like this in Phase 1a of the sites we’re currently releasing.
Clearly, this is a big site and we’ve got to put in the infrastructure. This is the reason why we’re putting the land up for sale in scheduled stages.
If you’re interested in building at Graven Hill, can you choose a plot anywhere on the site?
The first step is to come and talk to our sales team or look at the interactive map online to work out which sites are available. There are plot passports on our website which tell you what you can build. If, for example, you wanted a patch that hasn’t been released yet you can still register your interest with the sales team.
What scope is there in terms of house design?
Our design code identifies 11 character areas across the whole site. These could be anywhere from the entrance, which we call our Gateway Park; to the village centre, which is where our Phase 1a plots have been released; the boulevard; community streets or the urban and rural lanes. The zone you select will influence the level of architectural design freedom you have as part of the build.
For each individual site, there’s a plot passport. This details the total size of the space, the maximum internal area the house should be, the ridge height etc. It will also provide more information about the materials palette for that particular zone of the development, and will be specific about the level of flexibility you have in terms of the aesthetics of your house.
As you might imagine, there will be less autonomy in the central areas, while patches of land towards the edge will allow more room for creativity.
How will the planning process work?
For our golden brick plots, we’ve organised something called a local development order (LDO). This means that if you go away and put your design together based on the stipulations in the plot passport, complying with the conditions on the checklist, the Local Authority will be able to grant planning consent within 28 days under the LDO.
There is scope to do things that move away from the plot passport, but you’ll need to go through the normal planning process for this, which is an eight week process.
We’re trying to make the procedure as easy as possible, but individual self builders who want to do something a bit wackier still have the opportunity to do so by going through the traditional planning channels.
After you’ve purchased your plot, how long will it be before you can break ground?
It depends on the product that you purchase. If you buy a golden brick plot, then once it’s been reserved you can go and develop your design. Once this has been done, you can bring it back to the Graven Hill company to check it complies with the planning stipulations.
We will then prep the application for you by costing up the foundations. It’ll take us four to eight weeks to complete the groundworks, and we’ll be aiming to do multiple lots at the same time so we can pass the economy of scale on to the individual purchaser.
Therefore, with this kind of product, you could be starting work on site within six months of reserving the plot. If you’re going down the tailored route, the process will probably be slightly quicker.
Do the Graven Hill team provide any advice on how to finance your build?
When you come and talk to our sales agents, they’ll ask you about your funding requirements and will be able to signpost you towards a number of sources. For Phase 1a, we’re working with BuildStore and will pass anyone that needs a mortgage over to them. However, we’re keen to liaise with other lenders that might not necessarily be working with BuildStore at this point.
We also want to work with local brokers, as we’ve got the best part of 1,900 open market units to sell over the next 10 years. Unlike a traditional developer though, we don’t just want to get the highest amount of profit margin that we can.
We’re trying to create a community here at Graven Hill, and we want to promote self build as a solution for all demographics and all budgets. You don’t have to have loads of cash in the bank in order to live at Graven Hill.
Once you’ve started constructing your house, is there a time limit by which you have to complete it?
When you enter into a sales contract – primarily for the Golden Brick houses – the period you have to finish you build will be somewhere between 18 and 24 months, depending on which part of the site you’re on. The reason we say this is because there will be some individuals who purchase a plot and commission a factory-built kit house. Once it’s delivered, they could be living in it within eight weeks.
On the other hand, you could have others who are working Monday to Friday and coming to site on the weekends to do the work themselves. We have the time stipulation in place to try and limit the amount of time that you could potentially be living next to a mini building site.
That being said, we’re going to be working with self builders and we want to accommodate them. If the development company has to step in and finish off a property, then they will.
What’s going on up on site at Graven Hill at the moment?
We’ve put in the infrastructure for our first 10 plots, and these are all at varying stages of the construction process. We’re also putting in the roads, landscaping and services for the sites we’ve sold as part of Phase 1a.
Do you have a rough idea of when people who have already bought plots as part of that release will be able to start building?
We opened the sales process last August, so we’ve been telling purchasers that the likelihood is that their foundations will be delivered during the summer and they’ll be able to get on site in late September/early October. As we release the next lot of sites, it’ll be quicker to get started as the infrastructure has now gone in.
How much interest have you had from potential self builders so far?
The council has been talking about this project since 2013, so there’s been a lot of enquiries since then. The local authority did quite a lot of soft market testing and more than 2,500 people joined up to register their interest in self building. We’ve also got more than 2,000 people signed up to our newsletter.
Even though we’ve focused on marketing in the local area as opposed to running national campaigns, we’ve had interest from people quite far away. Individuals from London, Southampton, Devon, the Scottish Borders and even overseas have reserved plots.
Are the development works on schedule?
It depends on who you ask. When we bought the land at Graven Hill from the MOD, we were due to get it earlier than we did. For people who’ve been anticipating this development for a while, it might feel like a bit of a long wait. However, in terms of the programme we’ve put together, we’re on track.
Will people be able to find out more about the Graven Hill development at this year’s Build It Live event in Bicester?
We’ve got a dedicated stand where members of our team will be explaining the different opportunities that are available. Build It Live is a big event for us, and we’ll be having some special incentives if you reserve a plot over the weekend.
Are there any other important dates coming up that people should be aware of?
We’ve got lots of marketing activity planned for the forthcoming year, and our plot shop in Bicester is opening in May – this is where our sales office will be based. We will be launching our tailored products this quarter, too, as well as our pocket plots – this is a smaller piece of land where the foundations and the build can be delivered for around £210,000.
Image: Graven Hill self and custom build development
First published: June 2017