Jeremy Harris, a scientist by background, wanted a low energy house for his retirement. He talks about the initial stages of his self-build project: finding a plot of land and obtaining planning approval.
Interview with Jeremy Harris
Jeremy Harris, a scientist by background, wanted a low energy house for his retirement. He first came up with the idea that he might like to build a house around ten years ago.
It’s important to fully understand the beginning of the self-build process
Jeremy found television programmes and magazines rarely touch on finding a plot, designing a house to fit that plot, and the people you have to employ to do all of that work. It can be very expensive, costing thousands of pounds for planning consultants, architects, building control, etc.
Plots can seem very nice on websites but look nothing like the photographs in reality
Finding a plot of land was extremely hard. The Harrises drove several thousand miles, visiting disappointing plots. They began by looking at what they wanted to build, but Jeremy concluded this was the wrong way round: first find a plot, then determine what type of house will fit on it.
Having walked away from one likely prospect, by chance they found their plot of land 16 miles from where they were living. It was too overgrown to see properly and fenced so they couldn’t get into it, but looked like it might be exactly what they wanted: facing south (i.e. good solar access) and in a sheltered valley.
Buying a plot is not the same as buying a house – ensure services will be available
When buying a plot of land a solicitor can tell you if there’s a public footpath on it but won’t find out if you’ve got water, mains electricity, mains sewage or even if the boundaries are in the right place.
Services in rural areas are often stretched to the limit. Jeremy had to ask the relevant utility companies if they could supply:
- Electricity? Fortunately there was plenty of power on their doorstep.
- Water? Companies have a statutory duty to supply water but the issue is cost. They’d have to dig up a lane for 140 metres and although Jeremy shopped around (anybody with a licence can do the digging), the minimum cost was still £24,500.
- Mains sewerage? There’s no statutory requirement to supply this and the cheapest the water company could provide it was £14,800.
- A new phone connection? Telecoms companies see self-builders as developers. If there isn’t enough capacity, they can charge whatever they want to lay a new multi-cable.
As services would cost so much, Jeremy renegotiated the price accepted. The land hadn’t sold for eight years so he persuaded the vendor to knock off a substantial amount.
Many building plots have boundaries in the wrong place where the Land Registry is concerned
Plots of land don’t have registered boundaries as a rule. There was a boundary error affecting the Harrises’ plot meaning the house approved to go on it wouldn’t fit.
The process for resolving boundary errors is complex and time consuming. It’s up to the vendor to do it, so you have to persuade them to spend money with Land Registry to get title plans amended. This often affects adjacent houses, as well as your plot, involving lenders as they have a right on the title.
A stumbling block can sometimes turn out to be an opportunity
It took them a year to get their boundary error resolved, but this allowed time to plan the project properly.
Jeremy wrote a brief with eight key design points but the architects he approached didn’t seem to understand the role of design with low energy houses. Looking further afield for a Passivhaus specialist was an option, but thinking the distance might make communication difficult Jeremy decided he’d design their house himself.
So the year was productively spent:
- Evolving designs for the house
- Tracking down the local Openreach engineer who offered help at no cost, as Jeremy planned to dig trenches on the plot and an underground network would solve local problems with overhead cables and trees
- Discovering a borehole was possible, at half the cost of mains water
- Planning a sewage treatment plant, costing around £3,500; much cheaper than digging up the lane
This avoided inflaming an existing situation with the neighbours, as the plot had a chequered planning history, and saved money too!
Once the principle of development is established by an approval, it’s extremely difficult for planners to remove it
The Harrises’ plot had planning permission for a little stone bungalow that they didn’t want. As the local authority had approved the principle of putting a house on the plot, their plan was to submit a new application.
Areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and proximity to listed buildings put constraints on what you can build. For example, needing to have all the external materials approved, as was the case with Jeremy’s house.
Good communication paves the way for a smoother planning application process
In Jeremy’s area, seven objection letters result in the application being referred to a planning committee, where emotions come into play far more than planning law.
A previous application for the plot resulted in 14 objections at Parish Council level and dozens of letters. To mitigate objections for their application, Jeremy spoke to every neighbour, sent them regular update newsletters and even Christmas cards.
He also made scale models, enabling all interested parties to understand the design before the planning application went in. His wife could look inside the rooms to see whether they were big enough, and the neighbours could see what the house might look like in the landscape. And the scale model played an important part at the Parish Council planning meeting, where applicants aren’t allowed to talk.
“We had several cases where objectors turned to supporters”
Jeremy eliminated concerns by talking them through with neighbours:
|Genuine concerns||What Jeremy did|
|New house would overload the sewage system||Explained they were putting in a sewage treatment plant instead|
|Height of the house might block views or cast shadows||Used the 3D scale model to show that the house would be set into the hillside (3m down)|
|Being overlooked in their back garden||Used the model to show that the garage blocked the view (neighbour was also happy the garage protected their vegetable patch from the wind)|
Engaging with local people is important but Jeremy adds a caveat: be cautious and put your foot down if neighbours ask for too much; at the end of the day it’s your plot and your house.
The Harrises got through the planning stage with no letters of objection at all, so the decision was down to a Planning Officer purely based on the law and planning policies for the area, and approval was granted.
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