Leader: Slow, slow, quick quick, slow
Two of the industry’s longest-running on-off sagas have taken a turn for the better in recent weeks. Hinkley C has been signed off to become the first nuclear power station in a generation. At the other end of the construction spectrum, offsite housing, hailed for so-long as the answer to the housing and skills crisis, has taken some significant steps forward too.
But while both these developments are to be welcomed, how much of a tipping point do they signal? After almost two decades of vacillation are we at last seeing a new dawn for nuclear power? And does the championing of modular housing by big name house builders mean the technology is finally set to become mainstream?
Berkeley, Urban Splash and Barratt have all said of late that they will be turning more to offsite – with Berkeley chairman Tony Pidgley even going as far as saying that 20% of his output will be modular and that they will be investing in their own factory.
Institutional investor Legal & General is already on course to disrupt the market with the biggest housing factory in Europe set to churn out 3,000 new homes off the production line for private rent. And this is the real change: modular has been caught in a Catch 22 where manufacturers struggle to bring the cost down because of the stop-start nature of development.
If developers become the manufacturers themselves they derisk the process and potentially reduce costs and secure supply. Housing association Swan, which is also investing £3m in building its own factory, explains the attraction here.
Modular won’t suit every site, every client, or every consumer. But if the doyen of the house building world, Tony Pidgley, is extolling the “miracle” of delivering ready-made homes to site on the back of lorry, then expect others to give it a second look.
Turning to the issue of nuclear, the Hinkley deal marks a major step in the UK’s nuclear renaissance for sure. But of course the decision is still mired in controversy. On the plus side, greenlightng Hinkley will inject more confidence into the sector and calm fears that the new Cabinet is not as wedded to big infrastructure as its predecessor.
But question marks still remain about the reactor technology and costs, which, set against the falling costs of renewables, will keep objectors busy. In giving Hinkley C the go ahead, government sensibly also tightened controls over ownership.
CGN, the Chinese state-controlled company part financing Hinkley with EDF, has indicated its desire to push on with two others in Bradwell in Essex and Sizewell in Suffolk, which needs to happen without undue delay.
But the reality is there are still too many obstacles for comfort to feel entirely confident we can replace our ageing fleet of nuclear reactors, which supply a vital 20% of our electricity, to ensure we can keep the lights on.
Denise Chevin, editor