Offsite manufacturing hailed as part of housing solution

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Central government and City Hall have laid the ‘building blocks’ to address the housing crisis, with funding and guidance as part of its ‘no silver bullet’ approach. But any momentum on the benefits that might arise from modern methods of construction may be affected by a drop off in labour as Brexit uncertainties are causing many of the younger, migrant workforce to leave these shores.

Those were some of the key points made at Housing Innovation: New methods of construction and delivery - a wide-ranging conference held at the NLA last week.

Keynote speaker James Murray, deputy mayor for housing, said that the focus of the last nine months had been to build a ‘coalition’ across London to work out how we can build the substantial number of homes needed. Discussions with central government since last June have been ‘very positive’, he said, and have allowed the building blocks to be put in place for what we want to do in the coming years. The £3.15bn granted to help fund 90,000 home starts by March 2021 sent a message, strengthened by the flexibility that came with it, with draft supplementary planning guidance issued at the same time, and the Housing White Paper after that. ‘One of the strongest features of the Housing White Paper is that there isn’t a single focal point of it on which it lives or dies’, said Murray. ‘It simply sets out a whole range of discussion which is needed to be had about changing the dials, about optimising parts of the system, about all the small changes we need to make to the system and sometimes major changes, but right across the board.’ Murray commended housing minister Gavin Barwell’s acknowledgement of a possible ‘bespoke’ deal for London to make sure it has the tools to build substantially more homes and the ‘nice synergy’ between build to rent and offsite construction – albeit which was ‘not the answer but part of the answer’.  The GLA is now doing work on public land to make sure that the land that the London Land Commission audited is converted into a programme of delivery, while collaboration and engaging with the industry will bring about not just buy-in, but the best ideas. ‘I genuinely believe we can come up with better policy, better innovation and a better chance of building the homes that Londoners need’, said Murray.

But Mark Farmer, author of the Farmer report and CEO of Cast Consultancy, said that labour was a point of concern, especially given that many of the younger elements of an ageing workforce were migrants in a sector that has 45% migrant labour dependency. ‘The potential impact on London is quite evident’, he said. ‘My concern is that we are already starting to see a loss of labour from London, and it is already having a psychological effect on people staying.’ Growing quality and delivery risks are also manifesting themselves, he added, and there will likely be a fall in housing starts in London. ‘Time will tell how quickly and how far pre-manufacturing enters mainstream residential thinking but business as usual is not an option’, said Farmer, ‘whether that is in London or elsewhere.’

DCLG design and delivery adviser Andy von Bradsky said the diversity of supply being proposed by government was a ‘game-changer’ and commended its ‘embracing’ of renting. But we need to be cautious about getting it right, he said – ‘Let’s not go headlong into new technologies without testing them first and putting the right systems in place.’

The conference also heard from Lewisham’s head of planning Emma Talbot commending modern methods of construction as part of the wider package, and GL Hearn head of development group Stewart Murray, pointing out the important contribution SMEs can make to housing supply. Creative director at ABA Alison Brooks said there needed to be a ‘cultural shift’ in how we perceive housing in London as an infrastructure investment – perhaps use classes could be opened to build in future adaptability and we must define homes by area and volume rather than numbers of bedrooms, with an ‘insistence on beauty’. Modular also has the potential to help on estate regeneration, said Pocket head of design Russ Edwards, although small infill sites represent a low priority in the race for numbers. Finally, Waugh Thistleton senior associate Dave Lomax showed how building with timber was an effective and popular way of creating homes, especially at Dalston Lane, the world’s largest load-bearing CLT building. But it is also spreading to other developers who want to build quicker, cleaner and more sustainably with standard fixings available for masonry support and builders like Berkeley Homes becoming convinced.  ‘In lots of senses it’s not new, and that’s really exciting’, said Lomax. ‘Because if we’re going to affect the vast majority of housebuilding and do it in a better way, these are the people we need to be working with.’

David Taylor
Editor
New London Quarterly 

Part of the NLA Housing Programme

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