1. Governance
July 17, 2017

For a quick solution to London’s housing problems, look to pre-fab

By Richard Brown

The Grenfell Tower disaster has shone light into many dark corners – one of which has been the sheer difficulty of meeting demand for affordable housing, particularly socially-rented housing, in central London. 

Kensington & Chelsea, with the highest average land values in London, has a challenge that is particularly intense, but not exceptional: the borough has around 7,000 socially-rented units, but more than 1,800 homeless households are housed in temporary accommodation, 1,360 of these outside the borough – the highest proportion in London.

Centre for London has argued for more collaboration between boroughs to build more affordable housing where there is most space. But this is a long-term solution; it’s no good talking to traumatised and grieving survivors about lead times of two to three years plus, about short-term tenancies, about outplacements. They want to be re-housed locally and securely, in socially-rented flats. They have lost family, friends, possessions; they need at the very least to retain their local connections, their sense of community.

If the traditional housing market can’t meet these needs, then perhaps this disaster offers the opportunity to try something new.  As the UK’s housing crisis deepens, and the supply of new homes fails to respond to demand, architects, engineers and investors have been working together on a new generation of manufactured homes. Rather than using the labour-intensive technologies of bricks and mortar that have been in place for centuries, these new homes are built off-site using the precision manufacturing techniques that are commonplace in office development, then assembled on site in a matter of months if not weeks.

Modular housing: better than it used to be. Image: Morley von Sternberg.

With a few exceptions, however, manufactured homes are more talked about than built.  As disruptive technologies meet a highly conservative industry, there are problems with how systems work together, with the warranties that can be given, with insurance. 

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Centre for London is planning a project looking at how these can be unlocked. But perhaps the biggest problem is one of perception. Previous generations of ‘pre-fab’ and ‘system-built’ homes do not have a great reputation (though many ‘temporary prefabs’ built in the 1940s are still in place today).

These techniques mean that new homes could be built in a few months, on sites near North Kensington. Though there are few large sites in Kensington & Chelsea itself, there are several opportunity areas nearby: Old Oak Common, White City and Earls Court all border the borough.  If suitable plots of land could be identified and prepared within these area, and planning permission fast-tracked, new villages could be built to house Grenfell survivors, and could remain in place for three to five years, after which time it could remain in place, or be dismantled and moved to enable long-term plans to be realised.

Though procurement timetables would – as ever – be a challenge, the mayor and other agencies could appoint a selection of different suppliers to build new homes. In this way, he could respond to the needs of a desperate community, but also showcase a way forward for tackling London’s housing crisis.

Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. He tweets as @MinorPlaces.

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