Self-build projects can have a significant positive impact on the wellbeing and relationships of ex-Service personnel, suggests a new report by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the Forces in Mind Trust…

Whilst the majority of Service leavers return successfully into civilian life without too many challenges, there are some who need additional support – especially in relation to housing. It is estimated that around 15% of ex-Service personnel might be homeless for a time when they leave the Forces – which includes living temporarily in a B&B or hostel, or ‘sofa surfing’ as well as living rough. Recent estimates also suggest that between 3% and 6% of rough sleepers in London have a Service background.

The Community Self Build Agency (CSBA) is a charity that runs self-build projects for homeless people, with the overall aim of helping them to rebuild their lives, find work, and reconnect with social networks. In 2012 the CSBA completed a pilot scheme in Bristol to support homeless Veterans build their own homes with the objective of securing permanent residence, employment and in some cases reconnecting with their families. This has been followed by a number of similar projects.

The research was commissioned to examine the first two projects, assessing the financial implications of the projects to establish a cost benefit ratio and to also examine the social processes of the projects.

Academics from UWE Bristol with expertise in economics, ethnography, health and housing tracked and evaluated the experience of Veterans as they worked on a scheme to build their own homes. The evaluation of the project identified that the initiative had transformed the lives of participants and was seen to improve relationships, job prospects, mental wellbeing and physical health. The report also highlights that the cost benefit ratio suggests that on the two projects, every £1 spent yielded up to £7.20 of benefits.

UWE Bristol’s evaluation team, led by Senior Research Fellow Anthony Plumridge conducted the assessment to measure the effectiveness of the scheme, and could now be used to help establish the best way of running similar projects in future.

The research summarised in the report included in-depth interviews with the self-builders conducted by team member, Dr. Katherine Collins, who said: “The self-builders spoke of feeling pride and a sense of achievement, increased confidence and willingness to trust. Some noticed improvements in physical health, attributed to the combination of food provided every day on site, exercise, fresh air and improved sleep. They helped out their neighbours when need arose and most participants found work using their experience on site, training and contacts made with subcontractors.”

Ray Lock CBE, Chief Executive of FiMT, said: “There are many components that contribute to a successful transition from military to civilian life, and there is clear evidence that most Service leavers have the knowledge and resilience to cope with the process. However, for a variety of reasons, some people struggle, and providing a secure and safe home, together with a framework of skills and employment and the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family, can be the catalyst for positive change.

Self-building schemes could, it is indicated by this report, act as an enabler for change while delivering considerable benefits. The challenge now is to exploit these findings perhaps more ambitiously to expand the self-build movement across the United Kingdom, so as to reach out and transform the lives of many, many more. The evidence is here – the opportunities await.”