What avenues should East Anglia’s housebuilders and authorities be exploring to solve its housing shortage?
Houses, whether it’s about building, buying or renting them, are a hot topic.
The government’s housing white paper has declared the UK housing market is “broken” and lays out measures to “fix” it, from speeding up housebuilding to discouraging low-density development to supporting smaller builders.
The financial crash triggered a national slowdown in housebuilding which the construction sector has yet to fully recover from.
But as the housing situation reaches a crux – with demand and prices rising and pessimism rife among the under-40s about their chances of home ownership – is it time for a radical new solution to put more homes on the market?
Research from the Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) indicates 67% of people are unlikely to or would not buy the current new home offering.
According to HBF the number of homes built by small and medium-sized (SME) housebuilders fell from 40% in 1988 to just 12% in 2015.
Amid this discontent, alternative solutions such as reviving the garden cities movement and encouraging more people to build their own homes are coming to the fore.
Presenting the issues
Hopkins Homes, one of the region’s biggest housebuilders, saw its pre-tax profit grow by almost 25% in the year to April 30, 2016 to £28.5m.
James Hopkins, executive chairman of the EDP/EADT Top 100 firm, said: “There is no doubt that the country needs new homes and yet I have reservations about simply building more houses, faster. Too many developments over the past few decades are not in keeping with existing villages or towns so it is no wonder that local people resist housing plans, fearing the impact on their own lives and own communities.”
He added: “For us it’s not about cramming as many houses as possible into a space but about creating a community which will have an enduring positive impact on the area.”
Ron Beattie, co-founder of construction firm Beattie Passive, said council frameworks for housing development could be “prohibitive” to SME builders and that decreasing restrictions, particularly for self-build projects, would deliver more competition.
New Anglia LEP’s Building Growth group, launched in 2014, aims to help the LEP meet its target of seeing 117,000 new homes built by 2026 by growing employment in the construction sector, accelerating the planning process and improving the infrastructure and utilities needed to support new developments.
Its chairman Saul Humphrey said: “It is probable that the vast majority of people would like to live in a nice home in a great place, but we also need to deliver houses of a mixed tenure in a volume to meet demand.
“We are starting to see councils and housing associations return to the housebuilding market, but let us not forget that it is the private sector and volume housebuilders that are delivering the vast majority of the new homes that our population needs.”
A more independent approach
In 2015 the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act, proposed by South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, was introduced, obliging all councils in England to keep a register of individuals and groups who wish to bring forward self-build projects.
But challenges such as finding suitable plots, negotiating planning regulations and securing finance can still hold back budding self-builders.
Mr Bacon estimated the country could build an extra 60,000 homes a year if it adopted the rate of self-building common in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where self-building accounts for 40-50% of new home completions compared to 7-10% in the UK.
During a housing conference in Norwich last week Mr Bacon said development had become a “pejorative term” whose connotations could be changed if the kind of homes on offer did the same. “Development should mean houses that are well-built and well-designed, well-connected, well-served and environmentally sensitive,” he said.
Housing and planning policy expert Lord Matthew Taylor believes a solution could lie in the 70-year-old garden cities model. His review of the system led to plans for the construction of 14 new garden villages including one in Essex, announced in January.
Lord Taylor said a return to the principle of avoiding suburban extensions and instead creating new settlements with appropriate facilities, set out in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, would protect historical communities which made places like Norfolk and Suffolk desirable.
The self and custom builders
Beattie Passive, which builds timber-framed homes to the Passivhaus standard of energy efficiency, is a construction partner at the Graven Hill development in Oxfordshire.
It is the country’s first completely self- and custom-build development where the local council won permission to build up to 1,900 homes.
Ron Beattie, who founded the Hethel-based Future 50 firm with wife Rosemary, said custom-building offered an “exciting opportunity” to increase self-building in the UK. “Differing slightly from traditional DIY self-build projects, custom-build homes involve working alongside a specialist developer to help deliver certain elements of your build project, such as land and utility connections to get you started.”
He added: “Available land is the biggest challenge to increasing the number of self-builds in the UK. In order to increase the number we need support from councils and landowners to provide suitable land to be built on.”
Housebuilding: the figures
The New Anglia LEP has committed to support the delivery of 117,000 new homes by 2026.
However a report in this newspaper revealed Norfolk and Suffolk built 7,000 fewer homes than they needed in 2015, and that the LEP could be on course for a 28,000-home shortfall due to pressures on the construction sector.
The LEP’s Building Growth group was established in 2014 to identify barriers to growth in construction.
Research by the Norfolk-based Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) found there were 7,730 construction businesses and 51,100 construction jobs in Norfolk and Suffolk in 2016.
The board’s report said construction investment totalling £23bn was ongoing, with a further £18bn planned. The ongoing investment included £1.6bn on new housing, including 5,000 eco-homes.
Dereham, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill were among the new housing investment hot spots.