Housing minister Brandon Lewis, in an interview with Construction Manager, has urged the industry to adopt new house-building technologies to shrink delivery times, to embrace custom-build development and to see the extension of the Right to Buy policy to housing associations as a way to raise output.
The DCLG minister of state argued that the government had put in place policies designed to boost supply in the forthcoming Housing and Planning Bill – and it was now up to the supply side to present “solutions” to low output.
But he acknowledged that the most pressing factor holding back output was the shortage of skills: from site bricklayers to architects to back office administrators.
And he made light of his “target” of 200,000 homes a year in the current Parliament, saying that he came up with the figure at an event where Labour’s shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds and a LibDem housing spokesman had both come up with higher figures, so he “felt like Brucie on Play Your Cards Right”.
Asked how the industry could contribute to raising output above its current ceiling of around 150,000 units a year in England and Wales, his first target was the industry’s attachment to tried and tested methods.
“The reality is that we are still building homes the same way we did 100 years ago, which means it still takes 20 weeks on average or longer to build a house. We’re moving into the realms of new technology but actually we need to look at it on a much bigger scale, and to reach a point where we can build in a matter of weeks,” he said, adding that the DCLG was looking at ways of incentivising “Advanced Construction” under the Affordable Homes Programme.
Lewis was also enthusiastic about the wider adoption of custom build, where buyers have the latitude to determine the look and layout of new homes. He referred to a July visit to developer Urban Splash’s “House” project in New Islington, where customers can select the size and distribution of space thanks to the modular construction methods used.
“What really struck me at Urban Splash, was the speed of delivery, but also the customisation. The only thing that’s fixed is the outer walls; internally you can lay it out how you want. It’s about speed and therefore choice for the customer.”
Lewis argued that the planning system was no longer a constraint on housing supply, saying: “If you speak to people like the Home Builders Federation, land is not the big issue, 250,000 homes got planning permission last year.”
Custom build developer Inhabit Homes and architect Poulson Middle Hurst are planning this scheme at Blenheim Grove, south east London
But he stressed the role of skills shortages in putting a brake on output, urging everyone in the sector to “spread the message” of the career satisfaction it offers. “It’s about doing something that’s lasting . When you’re finished with a job it can give a family a secure home for the rest of their lives. That’s something very few people have in a job.”
He also likened the industry’s difficulty in attracting new recruits to that of the hospitality sector, where “working in a pub as a teenager can be a way to run a multi-million pound businesses in your twenties. It’s the same with construction, you can have your own business, or work at very high levels in one of the big construction companies, or work in other parts of the world.”
But his most striking call was for contractors to directly develop homes in the Private Rented Sector, selling completed blocks to investors and asset managers rather than acting as “middlemen” between specialist developers and long-term owners.
Pointing out synergies with contractors’ skill-set, he said: “If you’re building for the PRS, you want to build high quality so there’s low maintenance cost, and you’ve got to do it quickly, because you need to realise that asset. In this country, the developer who constructs the property is generally not going to manage the property long term, it’s bought by institutional money. It means there’s an opportunity for more in the construction industry to come in to that sector.”