Illustration: Frazer Hudson
As well as providing a way to help tackle the housing crisis, offsite construction can also have a deeper social impact, delivering training and employment in factories and benefiting the wider community. This theory has been taken a step further in a pioneering new scheme.
Six months ago, Manchester-based procurement consortium Procure Plus launched Osco Homes, a wholly owned subsidiary aiming to deliver affordable houses constructed offsite at a factory based in HM Prison Hindley, Greater Manchester. The target for Osco Homes is to build two homes a week, and within three years reach output of 1,000 homes a year.
Prisoners have been trained as construction workers while working on a project to deliver eight factory-built bungalows for a site in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, owned by Together Housing Group. The project is due for completion in April.
As part of the scheme 10 prisoners were initially recruited. All are in the final year of their sentence at Hindley and are trained to build external walls, and floor and ceiling cassettes of panellised homes. They have been given construction training in plastering, joinery, kitchen bathroom fitting, provided by Novus, formerly the Manchester College.
Mike Brogan, Procure Plus
Each prisoner is paid a salary for their work by Osco – over and above what they would usually receive from the prison – which is held in trust until after their release.
Once released they are employed full-time by Osco and are paid £19,000 a year.
Mike Brogan, chief executive of Procure Plus, explains: “The operation at Hindley has been a really big success and we’re now looking at doubling the space of the factory and also setting up factories at other prisons which we’ve had confirmed by the Ministry of Justice.
“The MoJ has given us a shortlist of their prisons to choose from, they will most likely be in the north west or maybe the north east. We’re not looking to rapidly expand, but in the next six months we’d like to have another prison operating the scheme and its own factory and then probably another to follow that, ideally three prisons in total.
“It’s not just about building homes, but providing training and opportunities to guys who may have taken a wrong turn in life but are keen to change. With the factory we’re providing this two-fold service.”
Of the 10 prisoners originally recruited, four of them have been released and are now working on site in Pontefract, helping to finish the work they started in the factory.
“All the guys who have been released are now working on site and improving their skills as well as earning a regular wage. You can see the pride they take in the work and the chances of re-offending for any of them is minimal,” says Brogan.
Above: The bungalows in Pontefract, constructed using components made offsite by prisoners at Hindley
“It’s been estimated that the cost of each person not going back to prison saves the government around £17,000 a year, but actually I’d put that figure much higher, which is another reason why this scheme is so important,” Brogan adds.
Kevin Ruth, deputy chief executive at Together Housing Group, said this personal impact and ability to make real change was the reason they become involved with the project.
“We asked ourselves, can we find a process to deliver properties quicker, but also has a positive social impact?
“We’ve had a long-term relationship with Procure Plus and we have total confidence in the end product.
Another consideration was the need to reduce development costs in the wake of rent reductions imposed by government. “So that’s why we looked towards offsite,” says Brogan.
While the higher costs of factory-made housing has been a barrier to its use, increases in the cost of traditional skills in the boom has tipped the balance in favour of Togther Housing’s model, he adds.
“Working with the prison has also been beneficial and it has really engaged our own development team, re-energising them and they are so keen to make it a success. I’ve also been to the factory, I’ve met the lads and see how enthusiastic they are and what a difference it all makes, it’s a no brainer really.”
Ruth says they have been so happy with the outcome so far that they are doing appraisals on two other sites where they plan to use Osco Homes and the prison offsite factory.
“The main thing from our end is to identify the right sites and make sure we have a continuous production line and help increase supply. For the next site we're looking at around 50 homes possibly.” cm
Mark is one of the first graduates from the prison scheme and is adamant that the experience has been positive for everyone involved and has set him up with a better future.
“I got a two-and-a-half-year sentence and served about a year,” he says. “I had a little construction experience before having worked in roofing. We were chosen by interview when we were inside and while a lot of the lads had some experience, maybe some joinery work or working as labourers, some had none at all and were taken on and trained up from the beginning.”
Mark spent six months working in the offsite factory and learned new skills that would help him secure work once released.
“We learned an awful lot in the factory. We learned how to put the frames together for the houses, rendering the walls, putting the door and window frames in. It was quite intense but probably what we needed.”
Mark, who is 36, says the programme was a huge benefit, not just to him but to younger prisoners and would help them not re-offend.
“There were two lads from the juvenile side taken on the scheme and it’s good for them as they’re still pretty young and can learn a trade and skills.”
Mark was released on tag on 11 November and was sent by Osco Homes to a training centre to complete courses on working at height, health and safety and other areas he would need to be qualified in for his new role working on site.
He started work on 21 November. “I had about a week on the training courses then had some time at home with my family and then started work, it’s a good turnaround time as it stops you from getting distracted,” he says.
His new role is a full-time job and he is enthusiastic about his future prospects and how he can progress and improve his life.
“I’m on a salary, have a full-time job and hopefully it’ll be a job for life really. I want to be promoted through the company, go from say a site operative to a site manager and I think there’s plenty of opportunity, it’s just all up to me.”
“I’m learning every day on site and improving. I’m even paying into a pension scheme so hopefully I’ll be here till I collect my pension.”