I’ve always been a supporter of localism as a way to promote custom and self-build (CSB). One of the main objections people have to the 10 big firms who construct most of our new housing is that they seem to be able to parachute huge developments into rural areas, seemingly with impunity.
Councils have their own housing targets to meet, and these companies are happy to factor in Section 106 planning fees (from which self-builders are exempt) into their budgets. It pays councils to let them do so – regardless of the howls of protest from those objecting to development on such a scale. The incremental creation of new homes through CSB is far less controversial, delivering better quality, more efficient and aesthetically-pleasing dwellings.
Since the coalition government of 2010 started promoting localism, the use of Neighbourhood Plans (NPs) has been vital in getting housing in the right quantities in suitable places. The local population is asked the best places for new homes to go to meet the regional quotas. This is put into a plan which becomes part of the Local Plan (LP) and therefore becomes planning policy.
In my local area of North Wiltshire, we were early adopters of the process, in what I'd deem to be a textbook approach to deciding what land should remain as open space and what should be considered for development.
One of the sites is directly opposite my own self-built home, where two dwellings will eventually be erected. I’ve been in favour of the development, offering my endorsement despite the proximity. It would be hypocritical, having fought so hard to get consent for my house, to now kick up a fuss and be branded a NODAM (meaning: No Development After Mine).
However, having been through this process and having the agreement of the village as to what goes where (a total of 33 new homes), there have recently been two applications for sites as large again from big developers. These were never offered up as part of the NP. A similar thing has happened in the closest town, too.
The problem is that until the NP is adopted into the LP and endorsed by the DCLG, we're open to any planning application from the big players. They know local authorities can’t say no if the submission meets the sustainability criteria under the National Planning Policy Framework that underpins the whole localism idea.
The result is that everyone is simply asking, “What was the point?” All that effort, debate and consultation to find that if you’re a big building firm you can throw your weight at the council and do what you want. The main culprit is the slow pace of getting political approval for the decisions made by local people.
The risk is that once these developers build, the housing targets will have been met. The small sites identified by locals won't be needed. If the target of 20,000 CSB homes by 2020 is going to bear fruit, endorsing NPs quickly will be essential to ensure we're not going to be engulfed by more mass-market boxes.
Image: Joakim Boren Photography. A self-build featuring a prefabricated timber frame from Baufritz