Opinion

Why there’s still work to do on housing quality

30 May 2019 | By Shelagh Grant

As we approach the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Shelagh Grant takes stock of the progress the housing sector has made on dealing with safety and quality.

Shelagh Grant

As we approach the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, it’s a good time to reflect on what progress has been made in the way the sector deals with safety and quality – not just in refurbishment of tower blocks, but across the housing sector more widely. The message from members of the Housing Forum seems to be: some, but not enough.

Post Grenfell, landlord organisations have made good progress in inspection and remedial programmes. However, a Housing Forum survey of our 152 member organisations from across the housing and construction sector show that only 54% of respondents think quality is somewhat improved in the past two years, with 40% saying it is still the same and 6% believing it has got worse.

Given the context, this perception is concerning and we need to ask ourselves why. Our experience is that most organisations involved in the design and delivery process have taken steps to assure quality.

But only 24% perceived any change in clients focusing more on quality than cost when tendering contracts and only 29% have seen an increase in quality standards in Employers’ Requirements.

Compromised standards

There is still the sense then that the link between cost and quality is lost in the drive to build the maximum number of homes with a finite amount of money. This approach inevitably leads to minimum quality standards, which are often compromised further in the construction phase.

And without a change in this mindset there is concern that the implementation of Hackitt recommendations, while driving up safety standards, will have a negative impact on overall quality. The cost of ensuring compliance – which we support 100% – could be traded off against the standards employed on the rest of the build. Members await the imminent announcement of the proposed legislation in the knowledge that it is likely to prove both challenging and costly.

Some of the changes made to regulations are already having unintended consequences. For example, the amendment to Regulation 7 now casts doubt about the use of steel frame solutions above 18m. This is leading to reported delays on schemes while clarification is sought from the government.

Recruitment drive

So what are effective remedies? Respondents to our survey identified several which are having a positive impact on quality. Some of these are technical solutions: BIM, offsite construction, increased standards and the use of digital photography to evidence compliance.

But just as important are those factors that are more value-led. These include organisational culture-change programmes, the use of contracts that facilitate a more collaborative approach, and clients who place a greater emphasis on quality.

We are at the start of an exciting drive for growth in housing supply, but at a time when the existing skills base is shrinking due to an ageing workforce and uncertainty over the supply of migrant labour. We believe there are two solutions which can ensure we are able to deliver on this. The first is a recruitment drive to attract young people of all backgrounds to the industry – something we believe government would do well to invest in.

Linked to this we strongly believe that the use of modern methods of construction (MMC) can play a major part in making the sector more attractive to young people and contribute significantly to the delivery of more and better homes. Government support to accelerate growth in SME manufacturing businesses and encourage a faster adoption of MMC by affordable providers would be welcomed.

We need to place more focus on the value of great homes and places and less on a relentless drive to reduce costs, pass on risk and simply deliver the numbers.

Shelagh Grant is chief executive of the Housing Forum

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