Serviced Plots Explained

Like the idea of buying a viable, build-ready site, with planning permission already in place and easy connections available to utilities? Chris Bates explains the serviced plot route
by Chris Bates
10th January 2019

In recent years, thousands of opportunities suitable for one-off homes have become available across the UK via the new custom build route, which seeks to smooth out some of the stress and pinch points of the traditional route to a bespoke project.

By far the most popular model that’s emerged is the provision of shovel-ready serviced sites, with the enabling works completed by a specialist developer, council or landowner.

What is a serviced plot?

Fundamentally, the term ‘serviced’ refers to the provision of key utilities as part of the sale – they’ll typically be brought right up to your site’s boundary, ready to be tapped into.

The idea is that this takes a lot of time and risk out of the process for self builders, as you know that all the main infrastructure will be supplied as part of your land purchase.

According to the Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015, the minimum that must be supplied for a site to qualify as serviced is access to a highway and connections for electricity, water and waste water (mains sewage). In practice, many plots are also offered with gas, broadband and phone connections.

Do they come with planning permission?

Since 2016, councils have been required to keep a Right to Build register of people and groups in their jurisdictions who are interested in building their own homes.

For each 12-month qualifying period, the local authority has a duty to grant planning permission for sufficient serviced plots to meet the indicated level of demand within three years.

Alongside the aim of simplifying the self build journey, this is one of the main drivers behind the fact serviced plots are always available with planning permission in place (as they can then count towards fulfilling demand).

The approval could be outline consent – which establishes the principle of development, with the detail to follow – but in many cases the plot will come with full planning permission (more on this later).

Who sells serviced plots?

You can find shovel-ready sites via any of the land-finding routes set out in our beginner’s guide on page 117 – eg via estate agents, word of mouth and browsing specialist online listings.

In addition, a number of the local authorities that are taking a more proactive approach to engaging with their Right to Build registers carry details of serviced plots for sale on their websites. Some exclusively list council-enabled initiatives.

Others are starting to include details of developments of multiple serviced plots from other vendors.

You can also look to go direct to companies who specialise in enabling and marketing this kind of site to see if they’re working on any projects in your area.

Examples include Custom Build Homes and package suppliers such as Border Oak (pictured above), Oakwrights and Potton.

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The serviced plot approach works best where there are multiple sites to deliver. This allows the landowner to access some economies of scale while simultaneously reducing the risk for the buyer.

There are other benefits for the vendor, too, such as the ability to be able to retain some control over the look and density of the development.

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So a serviced plot might be on a site of a handful of new houses, or it could be part of a development of dozens or even hundreds of homes.

The largest example in the UK is Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, a project enabled by Cherwell District Council. This scheme, which is currently in Phase 1, will deliver up to 1,900 tailored homes in total – of which around half will be self builds.

In addition to marketing a range of sites at Graven Hill, at the time of writing the Custom Build Homes website currently lists serviced plot opportunities in Clackmannanshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cheshire and Herefordshire. That just serves to demonstrate the fact this route is gaining traction across the country.

Do I have design freedom with serviced plots?

This depends on how the scheme is structured. Some developments will give you as much freedom as a conventional self build that’s on a plot you’ve found yourself – just without some of the hassle.

So the landowner or enabler simply secures outline consent and puts in the infrastructure, and you take care of commissioning a final design and gaining full planning.

On other sites, the owner or council may wish to retain some control over the development – so there will be an overarching design code that sets out parameters on house size, position of the building on its plot, materials palettes, fabric performance and the like.

It’s all about simplicity: you get more design freedom than on a standard development, plus the confidence that – as long as your scheme meets the design code – full planning consent is guaranteed.

In terms of project routes, with some schemes you’re buying into more than the serviced plot. Your contract with the enabler might include the foundations and floor slab, for instance, so you will get a clean, level building platform ready to take your bespoke design for the above-ground structure. This is generally known as golden brick.

Where projects are enabled by an architect or package house supplier, you might be required to use the company’s design and/or structural shell services. This may or may not impact on your architectural choices (many offer a bespoke approach) and procurement route.

Are these plots more expensive?

Given that the provision of services onto a site costs money – and puts more of the financial risk on the vendor – to some extent, this will be reflected in the price you pay for a shovel-ready piece of land.

What you’ll get, though, is value for money. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s difficult to get a true picture of the price of elements such as the utility connections when buying a conventional site, even if you’ve secured initial quotes from providers.

So the serviced plot route gives you greater project cost certainty in return for paying a slight premium. That said, depending on the nature of the site, there may be some economy of
scale with the infrastructure works.

The same principles apply to plots where the landowner or an enabling partner carries out more of the work, such as golden brick foundations, a shell-finish route or a full turnkey project according to your design.

The more risk and responsibility you pass on, the greater the degree of cost and scheduling certainty – but you will pay more of a premium overall compared to a traditional, DIY-heavy self build.

At the end of the day, a serviced plot approach will simplify your path to building a highly tailored home – one that suits your need and represents much better value for money than conventional market housing.

Main image: Mortimer Meadow is a serviced plot scheme in Herefordshire by Border Oak, comprising a total of seven bespoke homes. The development won Best Custom Build Project at the Build It Awards 2018

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