HPH146 : Could engaging with your local council help your self build? – with Emma Osmundsen from Exeter City Council
Emma Osmundsen from Exeter City Council suggests ways of enagaging with your local council for the benefit of your self build project.
Interview with Emma Osmundsen
Emma Osmundsen is a qualified chartered building surveyor who has been working in the public sector for the last 8 years. She is currently Shadow Director (Development) and Client Lead (Build) at Exeter City Council and her time there has seen her introduce the Passivhaus standard to the local authority and encourage its use for the City Council's own new build council housing and commercial properties.
Exeter City Council were an early adopter of the Passivhaus standard
Back in 2009, Exeter City Council were fortunate to have government funding to look into and adopt the Passivhaus standard on a couple of sites as part of their infill redevelopment programme. This resulted in the UK's first Passivhaus certified multi-residential development, for over 55s flats. Since then they've been working to reduce costs to make Passivhaus new build comparable with conventional new build, which is something they achieved with their second generation of Passivhaus council housing which were completed over 3 sites last year. Their fourth generation of Passivhaus, an extra-care scheme of 53 apartments with communal facilities, is about to commence on site and they are preparing to start work next spring on site for a new Passivhaus leisure centre and bus station.
Initially they were attracted to using the standard as a way of addressing fuel poverty, but have come to realise the commercial benefits and value for money that it brings them as landlords. Understanding that they can proactively influence the quality of the buildings, they are now pushing beyond the Passivhaus standard and adopting the German Baubiolgie (building biology) standard and also carrying out research with Exeter University to ensure their buildings are climate ready up to 2080.
“The aspirations of self builders tend to be a little bit diverse to what we can offer them as a City Council”
Local authorities have to keep registers of prospective self builders, and public land that is available to them and over the last 5 years Exeter City Council have attempted to get co-housing and smaller scale housing schemes off the ground, but have found it to be challenging. Generally most of the public land they have available tends to be infill plots so the prospect for self builders of investing their time, money and sweat equity in a plot on an existing larger housing estate, tends not to be attractive.
Emma gives the example of countries like the Netherlands where larger areas of land are carved up and sold as individual serviced plots, which is not something that is common in the UK. She suggests it can be a good idea for self builders to re-think their aspirations and consider living in a more sustainable city centre location which already benefits from enhancements in respect of travel and facilities. She explains there can be opportunities for local authorities to negotiate with volume house builders to ensure that some of the plots within those developments are made available for self builders, for which you could register your interest.
“So I would say that there are opportunities out there but perhaps there needs to be a realignment of self builders’ expectations of what really is there and will be available to you.”
Approach your local authority with a solution
Emma suspects that most local authorities will not be able to offer a huge amount of resources and officer time for helping self build projects get started, so she suggests approaching them with something that appears viable and deliverable. This could mean getting together with a few other self builders as a collective to set out your ask of the authority.
“Because generally speaking a local authority might be in a position to put the land in on a long lease but you might well have to consider ways in which there can be perhaps repayment of that land transfer at a later date, or ways in which that land can be held as an affordable land plot in perpetuity.”
Emma explains that you should do your due diligence and try and build a good understanding of the likelihood of land coming forward for housing, and be mindful of the local authority's obligations with regard to affordable housing, realising that there will be obligations that still apply to that land, not withstanding the fact that you're self builders.
“I think it would be time well spent on a self builder to actually examine what the potential constraints are likely to be and to provide some potential solutions.”
From a local authority perspective, they have to look after the best interests of the whole community, which doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with the motivations of lots of individuals focused on their own separate projects. For this reason Emma suggests it could be worth seeing if you could enter into some sort of joint venture with other self builders to take to the public sector land owner, offering to take on the design, facilitating the development and taking on the project management, but sharing some of their time and resources and look at doing perhaps a mixed tenure scheme so that the public sector get a net return on that land value.
“So I think it’s about working more cooperatively and collaboratively and perhaps thinking that would be an easier way to bring forward development as opposed to just individual self builders pepper-potted here there and everywhere.”
Engage with your local political members
Political members generally speaking are in a strong position to support your cause and encourage some of their officers to be more proactive in helping you realise your ambitions.
Along with speaking to the planning authority and planning officers, Emma suggests approaching housing enabling officers within the local authority as they might be aware of council land available from their dealings with house developers.
Another idea is to speak with local authorities that might be doing development schemes themselves, as they might be more receptive to consider opportunities that are outside the norm.
“I think it’s a very exciting time and, as we were pioneering eight years ago with Passivhaus, I think we need to pioneer new ways of delivering new self build opportunities.”
Find out more
Follow Emma Osmundsen on Twitter
Follow Exeter City Council Housing on Twitter
View the EXEseed Contractors Framework
Read the Exeter City Council Passivhaus development scheme information
National Self Build and Renovation Centre – The Big Green Home Show
Ben will be speaking at the Big Green Home Show on the 8th and 9th October 2016. He'll again be flying the flag for Passivhaus and sharing his experience of the many that he has seen. We'll also be holding a House Planning Help meet-up there and will email out details to our subscribers. If you would like to join that mailing list, fill in the details below.
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About The Author
Lucy Cowell is owner of the Virtual Assistant company Quantum PA. Being immersed in the world of architecture for over 20 years and since working with Ben Adam-Smith, she is now determined to build her own house one day too!