Welcome to a self-build haven in Oxfordshire

A council in Oxfordshire set out to create a self-build haven on a brownfield site.

The Community Led Homes North Yorkshire & East Riding Hub team visited Oxfordshire with colleagues from across the National Community Led Housing Hub Network.

We met at Graven Hill, near Bicester, Oxfordshire – the UK’s largest self and custom build site. It’s an audacious bid by Cherwell District Council to turn an ex-army base near Bicester into a community of 1,900 homes.

Inspired by the Dutch self-build village of Almere, the development set out to be an antidote to the UK’s swathes of ‘cookie cutter’ homes built by volume house builders.

The first of many striking things about the site is it’s sheer size. Cherwell District Council bought the 188ha plot from the Ministry of Defence in 2014. A short drive from Bicester Village, it has its own wetland, a wooded hill formerly used for cross-country training and is surrounded by farmland. So plenty of greenspaces and access to nature. The bird song in the woodland areas was deafening in places but delightful.

The History

After deciding to dedicate the site to self-build, Cherwell District Council drew up a business case and set up the wholly-owned Graven Hill Village Development Company (GHVDC) to run it. In 2015, Glenn Howells Architects drew up a masterplan that included a primary school, to be designed by Architype, a nursery and a community centre as well as shops, cafés and a pub.

It had design codes for 11 character areas, such as ‘tree-lined boulevards’ and ‘urban lanes’, and detailed ‘plot passports’ including roof and façade material palettes, as well as maximum build heights and parking space requirements. An early batch of 10 plots was released in 2018 to the 10 ‘pioneer’ residents at a cut price of £100,000 each. Their journeys were documented on the Grand Designs spin-off, The Street. The series explored how self-build can be fore everyone – whether you are retiring, a first-time buyer, upsizing or downsizing. Since 2019,hundreds of brave builders have moved to Graven Hill to have a crack at building their ‘dream homes’.

Walking around the self-build streets, the houses have far more variation than a standard housing development. But, while there are zany moments – a stripey beach-hut house with a giraffe model lying in the driveway – most people have played it safer with muted colour palettes of greys and blues, oversized windows and a rash of garages.

On any other new housing development, such an architectural jumble would be discouraged, if not prohibited. But Graven Hill is a giant petri dish for design.

Today, 400 homes have been completed. As entire streets rise from the rubble, the development offers plenty of fodder for the ongoing national debate over what constitutes ‘good’ design, not to mention insight into the innate human desire to ‘build big’ (even if it means losing your own garden).

We met a couple who had moved to Bicester to ‘right size’ and create the home they couldn’t find going down the ‘normal’ route after visiting Graven Hill a couple of times and having watched the TV series ‘The Street’.  They had re-located from Essex and opted for a home that was built in a Polish factory with their input to enable them to have a custom home that suited their needs exactly. They even had a small swimming pool in their garden.

When we asked them what was the reality of living at Graven Hill, they enthusiastically answered, “We love it! The community is friendly and we love the green spaces and meet lots of people whilst out walking the dog. We could never have found our home anywhere else through the normal route. Our home is unique to us! All we need now is a community space to meet up.”

But as with all experiments, there are stumbling blocks. It does appear that Graven Hill’s latest new-build homes are moving away from the ethos of the experiment as well as a sense of frustration at the lack of community facilities.

Graven Hill is being seen as a test case for self-build in the UK. Unlike countries such as Austria and Germany, where over half of all homes are custom built, the sector accounts for just 13,000 homes a year in Britain. This could change now that Homes England has the Self-Commissioning unit headed up by Angie Doran. Amid calls for the government to help scale up the industry, what lessons can be learned from Graven Hill?

Lessons learned

Planning permission is ‘relatively straightforward’, as a local development order for the site means designs are usually waved through in 28 days. Under its ‘Golden Brick’ set-up, Graven Hill will also build the foundations.

There are still no amenities on site. The community centre is a planning obligation only triggered once the development reaches a certain number of occupations. The shops remain boarded up (though a licensed café has just been announced) and the pub is now uncertain, with GHVDC saying it has struggled to find an operator given the challenges of the pandemic. It is now proposing changes to the masterplan.

To keep the development on track, the company opted to ‘diversify’ its product offer and began delivering its own custom-build homes. But are the homes they are now building exactly the type of ‘identikit’ housing the self builders were seeking to escape?

“Are some changes to the internal layout genuine custom-build homes?”,’ argued one resident who was one of the ‘pioneer’ builders who made his own house from scratch with sustainable materials such as hempcrete. He and most of his neighbours objected to a row of GHVDC-designed houses being built on plots originally designated as self-build.

The argument is that Graven Hill was created to offer an ‘alternative way of building’ but instead it is now building ‘standard’ homes. The resident say’s,”It’s a real missed opportunity because there is much that is really good about Graven Hill, and it’s much better than most developments.”

One of the lessons that could be learned for others to address is that prices are out of reach for most people, now that the larger plots cost £245,000 without foundations, and that the smaller plots are no longer available which enabled some affordable self build homes to be delivered at the beginning.

Another lesson to learn is the affordable housing element, where little effort has been made to make it tenure-blind. The first phase of 93 affordable homes are in small terraces that contrast starkly with the blingy self-builds. Residents there say it has led to a palpable sense of socio-economic divide across the scheme.

Graven Hill’s residents – already a tight-knit group thanks to their arduous building journeys – are adamant the scheme can recapture its experimental spirit. All it needs is a little more design expertise, and to mine one of its greatest assets: the existing community’s energy and creativity.

Have you thought about building your own home or considered working together as a community build with others who have a shared vision? Do get in touch with the Hub for an informal chat. clh@communityfirstyorkshire.org.uk 

Sarah Hart, Group Development Lead, Community Led Homes North Yorkshire & East Riding