Going Dutch

Here’s hoping that Grant Shapps found a bit more to do in the Netherlands on Monday than enthuse about self-build and get Kevin McCloud’s autograph.

The housing minister and the Grand Designs presenter were part of a UK housing delegation visiting Europe’s largest self-build project at Almere. There was also an event at the British Embassy aimed at boosting trade and business links.

They were clearly impressed by what’s happening and with good reason. There are more than 800 homes at Almere that people have built for around €50,000 less than the same property would cost in the commercial sector. Imagine something similar in Britain backed with planning reforms and help with finance and what Shapps is saying about the sector doubling in size starts to make sense (even if I wish he wouldn’t keep repeating the same announcements). If, as the minister told us two weeks ago, the future’s bright, it seems the future is orange too.

MPs on the communities and local government committee also became self-build converts after a visit to Almere last year. In their report last week, they recommended that the government should also work with local authorities to pilot volume self-build schemes by allocating sites and taking a flexible approach to planning.

It’s a rare example of all parties enthusiastically backing a housing idea and also one of those times when Shapps deserves some credit but (there’s always a but) my rather unkind opening paragraph was about more than just grabbing your attention and I’m hoping that he found time to talk to the Dutch about a few other things too. Here’s a selection (feel free to correct my less than perfect knowledge of Dutch housing):

First, the self-build site at Almere is just part of a new city that’s been under construction since the 1970s. As far as I can tell, the self-build experiment was in part the result of the credit crunch slowing down conventional development. In between a statistical spat with shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn yesterday, Shapps himself tweeted yesterday that the Almere presentation featured pictures of Ebenezer Howard, the creator of Welwyn Garden City in his constituency. But did he get the point that the Dutch have continued with an idea that we invented and then abandoned after 1979?

As housebuilding in England fails to keep up with demand from new households it’s not hard to see why support for new towns and urban extensions is coming from across a spectrum ranging from the TCPA to Policy Exchange. Almere may seem uniquely Dutch in that is built on land reclaimed from the sea but the wider lesson is that publicly owned land is the key to large-scale development. Are we capable over here of looking beyond the finite stock of land currently owned by the public sector and compulsorily purchasing tracts of land as we did for new towns in the past or trusting local authorities to form joint development companies like the Dutch?

The National Self Build Association put it this way in its evidence to the CLG committee:

‘The biggest challenge with a project like Almere is finding a local authority with the vision and enterprise to give it a go. The other key to the success is the initial land cost; it has to be acquired at something like agricultural values initially. The council then has to invest in the infrastructure—roads, utilities etc—and this usually adds at least £10,000 per plot provided.’

In contrast, it said that over here the HCA was about to release ‘five large sites for group self-build opportunities that should deliver around 70 homes’.

Second, the CLG committee MPs were impressed by BNG, the Dutch municipal bank that is the fourth largest in the country and jointly owned by the Ministry of Finance and municipalities. Lending is restricted to public and semi-public organisations and 52 per cent goes to housing associations. The MPs supported calls for the creation of a national housing investment bank here but Shapps told them he was ‘not convinced by that argument at all. I think the banking system in this country needs to work for all industries and sectors’.

Third, as a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published in February makes clear, there’s plenty to learn from the Dutch experience of managing the development of new settlements. Maybe they have discovered a thing or two along the way about making them sustainable and successful? At Vathorst in Amersfoort basic principles were set out in one large masterplan but individual blocks have their own character and opposition was overcome by agreeing community benefits like infrastructure before work started. It was BNG, incidentially, that lent €750 million to the joint development company formed by the Amersfoort municipality and five private companies to develop the Vathorst.

Fourth, there’s the Dutch experience of granting financial independence to housing associations in 1995. The MPs heard that Dutch associations now get no government subsidy and fund all new development through a revolving fund generated by the sale of existing and new build properties at market rate. That’s maybe not a million miles away from where we are heading after 2015 but the committee noted a mix of positive points about associations as ‘financially independent and strong performers in a tight housing market’ and negative ones about them straying too far from their core role and taking too many risks (with the largest Dutch association losing £2 billion in a derivatives deal). According to the CLG committee, the Dutch have set up a full parliamentary inquiry into the social housing sector and the outcome needs watching closely.

The lessons to be learned from the Netherlands go way beyond what I have space for here and my limited knowledge. The Almere visit and the enthusiasm for self-build are a good start but even doubling the size of the sector will not solve our housing crisis on its own. Here’s hoping the message about public sector involvement, trusting local authorities, alternative sources of finance, masterplanning, sustainable development and the rest has been heard too.

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing.

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