How we did it: Easing permission for self-build homes

An Oxfordshire council is helping custom builders secure consent through a local development order, Winnie Agbonlahor finds.

Development order creators: Cherwell District Council development services manager Jon Westerman and development management team leader Alex Keen
Development order creators: Cherwell District Council development services manager Jon Westerman and development management team leader Alex Keen

Project: Graven Hill Local Development Order

Organisations involved: Cherwell District Council, Graven Hill Development Company, JP Planning, Jon Rowland Urban Design

On the outskirts of Bicester in Oxfordshire lies a field the size of 300 football pitches put together.The site forms part of the Ministry of Defence’s Graven Hill logistics, commodities and service operations base and comprises woodland, grassland and farmland. There are also some commercial and industrial buildings located around the perimeter.

Graven Hill is part of a pioneering housing project steered by Cherwell District Council. A local development order (LDO) that comes into force on 15 December grants planning permission in principle for 198 custom-build properties. If this approach works, it could pave the way for up to 1,700 more homes to be built under similar arrangements.

Cherwell Council bought the 190-hectare site at the end of 2014 after identifying it as an opportunity for a new settlement. By March this year, it had decided that it would authorise development through an LDO, rather than relying on reserved matters approvals attached to an outline planning permission.

Development services manager Jon Westerman says the LDO approach allows for innovation and strips out some of the bureaucracy for people building or designing their own homes on the site. "It provides certainty that when they purchase a plot they can build their dwelling, subject to meeting specified requirements, without further consent from the local authority," he says.

Once the council decided on the LDO approach, it set out to construct the order in a way that would ensure that future buildings would be of acceptable quality. Development management team leader Alex Keen says the drafting task was made slightly easier because the site already had outline planning permission in place for 1,900 homes and other uses.

"That meant we didn’t have to go through the whole process of scoping the impact of development and examining issues such as contamination or drainage. That’s all captured through the outline consent and its conditions," Keen explains.

Council planners gave careful consideration to the way the LDO document was structured and worded. The team decided to use the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) as a template and followed its layout and language. "Given that we see the LDO as a local equivalent of the GPDO, it seemed logical to use the same format and content," Keen says.

Another key stage was to formulate the parameters and constraints within which individual self-builders would be able to operate. The council instructed urban designer Jon Rowland to help work up a masterplan, which focuses on the site’s overall layout, and a design code governing such matters as building footprints and heights, vehicular access, parking and waste management.

Throughout the process, Westerman explains, one of the biggest tasks was to persuade the planning team to accept that some of the control normally exercised by the local planning authority would be removed. "A key challenge was a change in mindset in terms of recognising that we don’t have certainty over what the end product will look like," he says.

"We recognised that we needed to nail down two things: the quality of public realm and the pallet of materials," says Westerman. "Once we had addressed those issues, we were reasonably comfortable in moving forward with the LDO and confident that, based on the parameters identified in it, we would deliver a development we could be proud of."

Keen points out that the council will still see how the new homes are shaping up before works start. Before plot buyers can proceed with building homes, he explains, they have to submit their proposal to the council, which then has 28 days to confirm whether or not it complies with the LDO criteria.

The order moved swiftly through Cherwell Council’s decision-making processes. The draft was approved by the council executive in early July. Following informal discussions with key stakeholders, it ran a formal consultation in September and October, producing largely supportive responses that merited no significant modifications to the order’s contents. The executive voted to adopt the LDO on 2 November.

The process of developing the site is managed by the Graven Hill Development Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the district council. Once the first 198 homes are delivered, says Westerman, "we will need to review the LDO approach to consider whether or not this is the appropriate mechanism to deliver further development at Graven Hill".

But for now, the focus is on the initial phase – and it is attracting widespread attention. Construction of the first ten homes will be filmed and documented by TV presenter Kevin McCloud for a new Channel 4 series. "This development will not just be historic for Bicester, it will be recognised as the largest self-build scheme ever delivered in the UK," says council leader Barry Wood.


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