Planning delays and bureaucracy are at the root of the housing crisis
Suddenly the housing portfolio - formerly the quiet backwater of political oblivion - has sprung into the headlines. As a result, housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis finds himself in a maelstrom of pre-election controversy as all the parties play property Top Trumps in a vapid effort to outbid each other in guessing the required number of new homes needed to solve the UK housing crisis.
According to Lewis, the 300,000-home shortfall is in part the fault of housebuilders for not adopting new technology at the rate demanded by the crisis over which he presides.
It is true that with only 141,000 new homes built last year, perhaps one ought to improve construction methodology, but I would have thought a far bigger inhibitor to housebuilding is planning, local authority vacillation and funding. All of which fall under the politician’s purview.
The minister apparently sees more ‘off-site’ construction as a solution and he cites the example of the Beechdale development in Walsall, which is using off-site construction to build 200 low-carbon homes per year.
One startling technological advancement that will surely please him is the planned upscaling of the 3D printing of concrete products scheduled for next year. I note that Skanska and Loughborough University have signed a deal to produce the first commercial concrete printing robot. It is predicted that these new printed concrete products are to arrive over the next 18 months with serious tests beginning this year.
The project is also backed by Foster & Partners, Buchan Concrete, ABB and Lefarge Tarmac. These are big-name brands and they believe 3D printing technology can be combined with a mobile pre-fabrication centre that has the potential to reduce the time needed to create the more complex elements of buildings from weeks to hours.
This development is, therefore, somewhat at odds with the government’s claim that the construction industry could find itself left behind if it does not ‘embrace’ new technology.
One word of caution for the minister, however: modular building needs huge investment up front for manufacturing facilities suitable for creating modular housing units. The halcyon days of post-war prefabs being adopted as a 21st-century solution to the housing crises may look attractive in an election manifesto, but they are simplistic, ill-judged and ineffective as a long-term solution. Perhaps Lewis would be better off talking to his colleagues about planning delays and bureaucracy before looking to play the blame game.
Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide.
Opinion piece first published in Property Week on 20th February 2015