Finding a Site For a Community Self Build

Could this terrace of derelict garages be right for an individual or community self build? Mike Dade looks at how the Broomes might be able to make it work
Build It expert Mike Dade
by Mike Dade
10th February 2020

Derek and Belinda Broome have just begun their hunt for a suitable plot on which to build a modest family house. They’re also looking at the possibility of teaming up with others to undertake a group self build.

They’ve spotted a range of disused garages in a suburban residential area. Could this have potential to accommodate one, or perhaps more, dwellings?

The location

The plot is situated about a mile from the nearest town centre, in a pleasant residential area comprising mainly terraced houses and blocks of flats. It’s a level, roughly triangular piece of land with nine lock-up garages along its rear boundary and a concrete yard in front.

It has a width of about 25m and its maximum depth measures 15m, narrowing down to about 10m towards the eastern end. The garages are situated at the top of the slope and there is an open outlook to the rear of the property.

There’s a row of houses to the west of the plot, with a windowless gable wall on the end, and some rough open ground to the east.

Opposite the garages, across the road, is a three-storey block of flats. Behind, to the south, are more flats but these are on much lower ground and set at an angle to the plot.

Plot details
  • WhoDerek & Belinda Broome
  • What A row of disused garages
  • WhereLondon

The nearest building is about 20m from the rear boundary. There’s a bus stop at the western end of the plot. The garages look derelict and the site is cordoned off with temporary fencing, so clearly not in use.

Planning possibilities

Given the suburban residential location, there’s a high likelihood the council would consider the site suitable for development in principle.

Learn more: Council Politics and Planning Permission

Loss of parking could be cited as a potential issue, but as the garages are not in use this can hopefully be overcome. The immediate proximity of the bus stop helps that argument as well.

Occasionally, sites like this are considered to have some value as open space, but given the previous use and dilapidated yard and buildings, which could presumably be done-up and reused, this also appears an unlikely objection.

If the garages were removed, the site would be empty with no trees or vegetation on it. There are some small, scrubby trees a few metres outside the site, but these would be unlikely to constrain development on it.

The immediate neighbouring houses have got no windows facing the site and the flats opposite and to the rear are too far away to be an issue in terms of loss of privacy, light
or outlook. So, on the face of it, the plot is a blank canvas with considerable potential.

As to precisely what might be built on it, the general pattern of housing in the vicinity is quite high density – terraced houses and blocks of flats. There are a few detached houses a couple of hundred metres away, up a side road.

Person surveys derelict garage plot

The row of garages from the road

Although the site would accommodate a single detached house comfortably, it would be out of character. Also, it would not make the most of the space. The objective of making the best use of available land for housing features strongly in government planning policy guidance and is usually reflected in Local Plan policies as well.

Derek and Belinda should check out what the council’s Local Plan says about new housing. It seems likely this would encourage a higher density than just one house, so the site might better suit Derek and Belinda’s group self build ideas, rather than a solo project.

Design & layout

At this very early stage, design is not something that the couple should spend a huge amount of much time on – assuming they don’t have anything too unusual in mind. Realistically, the design will be shaped by the need to blend in satisfactorily with the surroundings and by Derek and Belinda’s available budget.

With traditionally shaped brick and tile buildings dominating houses in the local area, these are likely to be the least contentious materials to use, from a planning perspective. This doesn’t completely exclude the use of different materials and perhaps a contemporary design – but this approach has a marginally greater potential to cause planning problems down the line.

The layout of the site is very much dictated by its shape. Any house or houses would be most likely to front onto the road, backing on to the open southerly aspect to the rear and taking advantage of potential sunshine.

Overgrown plot

If the new building was pulled more centrally into the site, as opposed to the garages, which are right on the rear boundary, that would enable a small but sunny back garden.

There’s an existing access onto the plot from the road, but it’s close to the bus stop and coincides with the bus stopping area, so not ideal. An access farther to the east, away from the bus stop, would be more suitable and could enable some off-road parking at the narrow end of the plot.

Pursuing the plot

A good first step for Derek and Belinda would be to look up the site in the council’s planning records. In the absence of the plot having any kind of obvious address, this may be tricky. But, many councils now have an online mapping system to facilitate checking the planning history for any area of land.

This would reveal whether anyone has applied for consent for the plot and, if so, who owns it. With urban garage sites it would be fair to say that planning policy has shifted over the years, making it more likely that permission might be granted now.

This reflects the emphasis on reducing car travel and also the need to make the best use of land in sustainable locations. The proximity of a bus stop could be a huge help, too.

So, even if Derek and Belinda encounter a history of refused applications for redevelopment in the past, they shouldn’t let that put them off pursuing permission for their self build now.

While investigating the plot’s planning history, Derek and Belinda should also
look at the council’s Local Plan. The maps that form part of the Local Plan would show whether the site they’re considering has any particular designation.

For example, it could already be earmarked for redevelopment for housing or, less likely, as open space. They should also look at the council’s policies for new housing within residential areas and consider if they could meet the criteria that’s relevant to their project.

The question of who owns the site and whether they’d sell is a key issue. However, it makes sense for Derek and Belinda to do some research on planning first, so that if and when they do approach the owners, they have a coherent plan of action to propose.

As they’re right at the start of the plot-finding process they should regard this as a trial exercise. This experience will give them a good insight into how to assess a site and go about finding and contacting owners when a potential plot isn’t currently on the market.

If the site looks like it could be a genuine contender, a final preliminary step might be for the couple to seek pre-application advice from the council. This would involve getting some sketch plans drawn up and they would be required to pay the council’s fee – a few £100s.

They don’t need to own the site, or even have the owner’s permission to do this, but it’s unlikely to be worthwhile unless they have obtained some indication from the owners that they might be able to buy it.

The site has obvious potential, and with a little investigation, Derek and Belinda should be able to determine whether it’s worthwhile pursuing for their family home.

One Comment

  1. Patricia P Baldwin says:

    We are looking for a plot of land to build a detached house in the Tarporley area near to the village

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