We’ve got ambitious government targets, an appetite to build and huge numbers of people who need housing. But we’ve known all this for some time, yet we are still in the same situation – a housing crisis.
So let me start with an obvious yet uncomfortable truth – relying solely on traditional construction methods will not halt the housing crisis. This isn’t a comment on the traditional product or its processes, more a reiteration of a well-known fact: skills capacity is also at crisis point.
It’s a stalemate situation. In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report on the relationship between housing and employment. The report found that neighbourhood investment creates a sound basis for employment, and that affordable rent provides a greater incentive for people to work.
One relies to some degree on the other. After all, a home is about so much more than bricks and mortar. So why aren’t we jumping at the chance of doing things differently to get out of this impasse?
The UK is something of an outlier when compared to many of our continental neighbours. Areas like manufacturing have seen steady productivity growth over the last twenty years, allowing more economic growth with the same or fewer number of workers. However, the UK construction sector has seen productivity flat line for the past two decades. This limits growth, and means a loss of more than £100bn a year of economic benefit.
There are alternative products and processes we can take advantage of – but we seem to be simply dipping our toes in the water. Personally, I think we’re suffering from a lack of confidence. We need confidence in the quality of modular products (which, clearly, from our recent YouGov research, the public doesn’t have). We need confidence in the durability of MMC (modern methods of construction) products.
And we need confidence in the sector that the intention of modular suppliers is to add to capacity, not to replace traditional processes.
This is why my team are currently working with a range of modular and MMC suppliers to robustly compare and contrast a range of housing products. It’s a live research project in Gateshead that will monitor and evaluate the build process and lifestyles on offer through a range of different construction methods – including traditional. The homes will be for affordable rent and tenants will be involved in the ongoing evaluation.
So why are we doing it? If we make this research available to other developers perhaps as a sector we can make more confident and informed decisions about new construction methods.
Because while MMC is being used across the sector, we’re not using it at scale. And its scale that we need to affect change: 300,000 homes is no small number, after all. (What’s more, according to a survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, only 12 per cent of surveyors believe we can hit that target – another confidence boost needed).
MMC isn’t as affected by the crisis in construction skills capacity. It’s an entirely different skillset. So it’s not about skilled tradespeople jumping ship.
You could almost envisage two different pathways into housebuilding. Studies have told us that millennials are purpose-driven, and therefore most likely to be attracted to organisations that are driven by purpose. So maybe that’s how we have to think about careers in construction.
There may be two distinct pathways being formed with two distinct skillsets – but ultimately, both are responding to the housing crisis. Perhaps that’s the draw. And having increased opportunities may well see an increase in people working in the sector overall.
We’re not competing in a crowded marketplace. There is a desperate need for more homes. We need to embrace every construction method available to us and work collaboratively to meet the government’s targets.
Let’s keep the end goal in mind and not be restricted with the way we’ve always done things. It’s time to take a different approach.
Mark Henderson is chief executive of the housing association Home Group.