For many teachers, getting on to the property ladder seems like an impossible dream. And as Tes reported earlier this month, the housing crisis is making it even harder for schools to recruit and retain good teachers.
Now one Conservative MP has suggested a novel solution: encouraging teachers to build their own homes.
During House of Commons education questions last week, Richard Bacon, the MP for South Norfolk, urged the education secretary, Justine Greening, to meet him to discuss how self-built housing “can be used to recruit and retain teachers in difficult-to-fill subjects”.
But how could this work in practice?
Speaking to Tes, Bacon says that a private member's bill that he steered through Parliament – the Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 – “offers potential solutions” to the teachers’ housing crisis.
The law requires local authorities to keep a register of people wanting to acquire a piece of land where they would like to build their own home. It also requires councils to “provide enough suitable planning permissions to meet the demand on the register”, he explains.
These registers include not just individuals, but also “associations of individuals” – a category that Bacon says can cover “literally anybody”.
So a group of teachers, the governors of a high school or a set of academy trustees could potentially band together and ask their local authority for land on which to build housing.
According to research from the Building Societies Association, 53 per cent of people in the UK have the ambition to build their own home at some point in their lives.
And 33,000 people are now signed up to the Right To Build registers, according to the National Custom & Self-Build Association (NaCSBA), a group of local authorities, developers and planners.
Time constraints on teachers
Nonetheless, many people would question whether large numbers of teachers are suddenly going to don hard hats and start laying foundations.
But Bacon points out that teachers wouldn’t have to necessarily build – or buy – the houses themselves.
“Most self-builders don’t [literally] self-build – it’s more a case of commissioning somebody to build the house that you want,” he says.
His scheme was inspired by projects in the Netherlands and Germany, where groups of people commission a block of housing to their specification, which is then let to them at an “affordable rent”.
“What happens often in Berlin is an architect finds a group of people, finds the land, finds the finance and then approaches the local authority on behalf of this group and says, ‘This is what we’d like to do.' The local authority says, ‘How can we help?’”
But do teachers really have enough time on their hands to do all the research and work involved in drawing up such a plan? Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, doubts it.
“Any initiative which provides good-quality, affordable housing for teachers would be welcome in areas where property prices are prohibitively high," he says.
“It would be helpful to consult school governors and teachers about their needs, but the extent of their involvement would be limited by the existing demands on their time.”
Putting time constraints aside, which parts of the country would stand to benefit most from Bacon’s scheme?
The MP thinks that canny schools, particularly in rural areas like his own constituency, which often struggle to attract teachers lured towards the “bright lights and big city”, could use the promise of self-designed housing as a “recruitment tool”.
Benefits for rural schools?
One of the advantages rural areas have, he says, is that there’s “plenty of land” on which new houses can be built.
“You can imagine saying to a potential recruit, ‘Come to our school and we will help you to build the house of your dreams,'” he says.
“‘We’ll help you build the house that you want – to your design. You’re a historian? You’ll probably want a library in your house. You’re an arts and crafts teacher? I can imagine you might want a workshop in your house. We’ll help you build it, we’ll make the faff of that go away… and then we will rent it to you at an affordable rent.’”
Bacon is vague on some aspects of his idea, such as who will come forward to finance such projects. He admits “this is very, very new, it’s work in progress”.
But he believes that Greening is keen to discuss the concept, and he hopes “to persuade [the Department for Education] to think about running a pilot… to get something off the ground quite quickly, perhaps at a small scale, but which shows that it can be done”.
Although many of the details need to be ironed out, Bacon isn’t the only person who thinks his scheme could have legs. In fact, the LSE’s Professor Tony Travers, an expert in public finance and local government who has advised the Commons Education Select Committee, believes it has potential.
“I can’t see why it wouldn’t work,” he says. “Providing the council, the group concerned and the teachers who would benefit had aligned interests, it should be like any other communal effort.”
The question, he says, is: “Would an institution – a building society, bank or public sector body – lend money to get the properties built? I assume the rents could then repay the loan.”
Local authorities would probably need to offer “some form or discount or incentive to make the offer appealing and affordable”, says Michael Holmes, chair of NaCSBA.
He adds: “This could be through partnering with a financial company for attractive mortgage offers, or through subsidised land, which could be an option for councils with their own land to build upon.”
The government’s £3 billion Home Building Fund has a specific remit for innovative projects – especially those involving custom builds – so could be a route to finance for projects like this, he says.
'Teachers really need a pay rise'
But rules may need to be put in place to ensure the system is not abused, says Holmes. For example, teachers may need commit to work in the local area for a certain number of years, “to ensure such a scheme cannot be used to flip homes”.
But is this all just a big distraction from the main obstacle facing many teachers longing for a home of their own: affordability in the face of escalating prices and frozen pay?
While the ASCL would welcome more local projects aimed at providing affordable housing, it also wants to see a “decent, fully funded increase in teachers’ pay”, says Barton.
And Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU union, is sceptical that self-build housing on its own can solve the teacher housing crisis.
“Any ideas that help teachers get houses are worth considering,” she says.
But she adds: “The scale of the problem for teachers now is immense – especially for new teachers.
“Self-building houses is only going to be a very small scale response to this problem. We need a massive increase in social housing and private building. And teachers need a decent pay rise."
Although the private housing market is showing signs of slowing, substantial pay rises for teachers are hardly looming large on the horizon.
And Bacon thinks government needs to show more “imagination” to tackle the “scandal” of the housing crisis.
“To be a teacher is one of the most noble callings that it’s possible to think of,” he says. “[Teachers] should reasonably be able to expect that if they qualify, go into the workplace and serve our country by teaching the next generation, that they can afford somewhere decent to live.
“That shouldn’t be that difficult. And at the moment it is.”