Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

Socitm deliberates: what’s the future for local government digital services?

By Steven McGinty

Today, the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) are having their 28th annual Spring Conference. The event provides business and technology leaders from across the public sector with the opportunity to discuss the future of government digital services.

A key issue up for debate is the development of ‘local public services as a platform’. This is based on the idea of ‘government as a platform’, a UK government policy which aims to provide:

“a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services”

The most high profile example of government as a platform is the use of a single website to provide digital services, known as GOV.UK. This was introduced by Government Digital Service (GDS), the organisation responsible for the digital transformation of central government services. It’s believed that the use of GOV.UK has led to more than £60m in savings, simply from replacing the DirectGov and Business Link websites.

How could local public services as a platform work?

To date, there have been two main approaches put forward. The first, proposed by Richard Copley, head of information and communications technologies (ICT) at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, involves the creation of a Local Government Digital Service (LDGS). This would oversee the development of a single website for local government services, removing the need for individual council websites. It’s argued that this would only cost each council £3,000 per year, allowing local councils to make substantial savings.

However, Socitm have rejected the idea of a single website for local services. They argue that a single website:

‘..ignores the independence of local authorities as organisations that have different democratic mandates and priorities… local government is exactly that. Local requirements, whether of geography, size, demographics or politics, must continue to drive council websites.’

Instead, Socitm suggests the use of a common platform for sharing local government tools and applications. This would mean that local government could promote and share examples of best practice. However, they do acknowledge that incentives would need to be introduced to encourage this.

Is there political support for extending government as a platform into local government?

There was certainly intent by the Conservative government to have this happen. Ed Vaisey, UK minister for culture and the digital economy, is an advocate of Richard Copley’s view of a ‘local government digital service’ (LGDS). He explains that having local government on one website is an ‘ambition’ and emphasises that it has the potential to save billions of pounds by providing a gateway, similar to GOV.UK, for local government services.

Similarly, George Osborne made the increased use of digital services a major theme of the last Budget. For example, the Chancellor has expanded the remit of the Government Digital Service (GDS), to include collaborating with local councils to develop ‘customer-focussed, digitally-enabled, efficient local services’.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah has also been involved in the debate. Last year, she was keen to see the GDS support the work of local councils, which indicates that there may be some agreement with the Conservative Party. Recently, she expanded on her view, explaining that if the GDS were to work with local councils, they should focus on major areas such as social care and benefits.

At the moment, the future of local government services is uncertain. However, it’s important that we continue to debate the issue in order to find solutions that will provide real value for taxpayers, as well as provide better public services.


Further reading

Is our electoral system going through the biggest change in a generation?

By Steven McGinty

The biggest change in a generation? Quite simply: yes.

Last year, we saw an unprecedented focus on the democratic process, with high profile votes such as the Scottish independence referendum, as well as revolution in the way in which citizens vote through the introduction of the Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It’s likely that this degree of interest in the political system will continue as we move towards the general election in May, with a number of related topics being up for debate.

I’ve therefore decided to highlight some of the most notable election and referendum-related issues, as well as look at which might come up in the general election campaign.

Individual Electoral Registration

The introduction of IER in June 2014 was a major step in the delivery of digital government services. It was implemented to provide a more modern service and to help combat electoral fraud. The IER system is essentially a hub that was built by the Government Digital Service. The hub links up with the Electoral Management Software (EMS) in each local electoral area. There is no central database of voter details and the data has been received and saved locally, and is deleted from the Hub within 48 hours.

Yet although these changes have been introduced to improve the system, Dr Toby James, Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics, suggests that they could have the opposite effect, and lead to reduced levels of voter registration.

Political engagement

The Scottish independence referendum was described by some as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, which would have permanently changed the political landscape of Scotland. The plebiscite saw 84.6% of the population voting, the highest turnout a nationwide election has had since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. The election also gave 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote, which resulted in 109,533 young people signing up before polling day.

It will be interesting to see if this high level of political engagement and the lowering of the voting age will be reflected across the UK in the future. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already accepted proposals by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to lower the voting age in Holyrood elections permanently; although a House of Lords committee has raised concerns over these plans.

European referendum

The referendum on Europe could potentially be the big issue of this year’s general election. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Conservative Party have promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if in government. However, the Labour party, at the moment, are against the idea of a European referendum.

Due to the fragmented political environment, it is quite possible that there will be another coalition government. In this scenario, parties will negotiate and smaller coalition partners may change their stance. At this stage, other parities including the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Green Party and the SNP may also have an impact.

The latest polls are too close to call: with Ipsos MORI showing the Labour Party leading the Conservative Party by 1 point and YouGov showing the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party by 2 points. If the Labour Party win, it’s unlikely that there would be a referendum on Europe; however if the Conservative Party win, it’s likely that there will be.

Boundary changes

Boundary changes, although not as high profile as the debate on Europe, could also figure in the next parliament. In 2013, a Conservative backed plan to reduce the number of constituencies was rejected by their coalition partners and the opposition parties.  However, there are currently a number of electoral reviews being carried out by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. For example, North Dorset Council will make changes to their boundaries that will come into force at the local elections in 2015.

Devolution

Greater devolution within England is also expected to be a major general election issue.  Although directly elected mayors have been part of the political landscape since the early 2000’s, not many cities have chosen to introduce them due to low voter turnout. However, in November 2014, the chancellor, George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have a directly elected Mayor, who would have a host of new powers for the region. This increase in powers, alongside a greater desire for more local decision making, may lead to a higher voter turnout than has previously been seen. It will be interesting to see if this triggers demands for mayors from other regions.

Police and Crime Commissioners

The spotlight will also be on the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Similar to the mayoral elections, turnout has been very low for PCCs elections, with the average turnout approximately 14.7%. If the Conservative Party wins the general election, it is likely that PCC elections will continue across England and Wales, despite their low turnout. Conversely, if Labour wins the election, it is likely that they will scrap PCCs, arguing that the Conservatives have wasted millions of pounds on PCC elections.

Whatever the result of the UK election, 2015 looks like being another big year for all aspects of elections management and voting.


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Further Reading: