Friday, May 26, 2017

Custom splitting - a magic bullet?

The 3hrs and 40 mins sitting on the X5 bus between Oxford and Cambridge is an ideal opportunity to let the imagination roam free.  I wonder how many ideas dreamed up on this bus along the ‘knowledge spine’ have gone on to be developed through the academic powerhouses at either end? An argument against reducing the journey time?

My reason for the trip was a seminar on self and custom building being run by Three Dragons, a planning and economic consultancy.  There seemed to be general support and optimism that self and custom building would grow from the measly 7.7% of the approximately 150k new homes being built each year but that it would be stretch to get to the levels being experienced in most other countries.

Leading on from the previous Blog (Dan’s Housing Plan), it seemed logical to add  ‘custom splitting’ to custom building and finishing.  The 4.4mllion houses that the Intergenerational Foundation estimate could easily be subdivided (Unlocking England’s Hidden Homes) represent a massive potential for people to create and fashion their own homes.  A ‘custom split’ could involve either or both the existing or prospective households in doing all or some of the work.  The cost to the newcomer would be significantly more than a bare or serviced plot but the cost of conversion would obviously be very much less than new build.  This would create the ideal opportunity for the whole building to have an energy refit (80% of existing dwellings will have to move from EPC D and below to A or B in the next 30 years) and there would be the potential for ‘downsizing in place’ in a form of equity release or even as renting the new dwelling(s).  Although a new small dwelling would be suitable for young households (largely missing from the self-build record),  all parts of the divided dwelling would be part of the HAPPI family of homes suitable for the elderly which the volume builders seem to be reluctant to provide.  Instead of dividing plots by building in gardens, custom splitting creates new  (smaller) dwellings while preserving the open space. Of course all larger dwellings should be built with a possible/likely future sub-division in mind.

While some of these benefits were already part of Dan’s Housing Plan,  self or custom splitting could be key.  This is because of the registers of potential self/custom builders being kept by local planning authorities given the responsibility to provide serviced plots to meet demand. The difficulty presented to LPAs in discharging this duty will lead to registers being hidden away, fees imposed and local qualifications being required; anything to dampen the interest and the chances of the registers fulfilling their purpose of raising the level of self/custom building to 20% of a larger number.  It should be relatively simple to ask those joining the register whether they would be interested in assisting with a custom split.  A register could also be kept of owners of larger properties who would be interested in having these divided (to include a green refurb) – whether or not they intend to stay.  LPAs should put policies in local plans encouraging sub-divisions that will make it easier to resist objections from neighbours afraid of losing on-street parking – a very small price to pay for a way of unlocking hidden homes.  This efficient use of the housing stock should also be incentivised with grants that could be paid back on completion of the works. A Local Development Order could make green custom splitting permitted development.
Custom splitting is a response to those who see planning and housing as an incoherent mess that frustrates progress.  This form of development is just one of a number of potential triggers of a potential virtuous circle that could create a large number of small (ie the right size) energy efficient homes with the minimum use of the scarce resources of land, materials and labour.

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