Coming out of recession is an interesting time. Companies have cut back their expenses, their marketing budgets, their overheads, we are all running lean businesses. Those that have survived. Many in the housing industry are now talking about growth rates of 20-50% per annum over the next couple of years as the industry ramps up to meet demand. But how are we going to ramp up? Are we simply going to go back to the end of the last recession when we welcomed an influx of new Europeans from the former Eastern Bloc countries, who came to the UK and provided a new workforce to supplement the industry? Will we see an influx of Greek, Italian and Spanish workers who are unable to find work in their own economies? Yes we probably will, but even with this additional workforce it is unlikely that we will be able to double output within two years, and maintain that for a substantial period. Migrant workers are just that, migrants, and while a proportion will stay for a long term, many will not, and will repatriate at the earliest opportunity.
Let’s take this opportunity and re-look at how we construct housing in the UK. let’s move a substantial amount of the output into factories where anyone can work. Safe, clean well-lit factories where women as well as men can participate in the manufacturing of housing. Places where a beer gut and foul language are as out of date as a lump hammer and a bucket of wet cement. For several months now I have been hearing stories of how difficult developers are finding it to source the bricks and blocks that they need to build the projects they have coming on stream. If trying to ramp up production from small numbers is proving problematic, what will it be like if we try to double output?
While the housing industry has been dozing, the world has been moving on.
Manufacturing is starting to turn on its head, instead of large factories producing millions of widgets, all of them the same, the future is of smarter smaller production systems making products for the needs of the individual consumer. Adidas Mi sportswear offers customers choices of colours, sizes, trims. Car manufacturers have been doing the same for years. 3D printing is promising us the ability to design and make goods in our own homes to suit our own desires, instead of having to buy what whatever someone else makes and thinks we desire.
In a recent report the Housing Forum pointed out that most other consumer facing industries have been transformed by the intervention of sophisticated Information Technology. telephones, music, computers, tablets, pads, are all industries that have changed beyond recognition in the last decade, and all of them are delivering enormous benefits to society and making profits for the companies at the forefront of manufacturing and design. Why should housing be different?
This is a moment for the housing industry to seize, we can make housing better by making it in better ways. By moving a large proportion of our output into factories we can increase production and productivity at the same time. We can create employment for new types of people who have been out of work for years by placing factories where the workers are, not where the building sites are. We can deliver more sustainable homes by reducing the amount of embodied energy that goes into them and by reducing the number of vans and trucks that need to come to site. We can speed up production to enable hew entrants to the housing market to rent and then buy the home that they desire, and not the home that we think they ought to be happy with.
We don’t need another report to tell us what we already know, Latham told us decades ago. It was true then and its still true now. We need to make this decision ourselves and help each other out. Developers and housebuilders need to acknowledge that by restricting their supply chains to traditional methods of construction they are stifling the development of smarter methods of production. Factories need certainty of demand in order to invest in equipment and training. With the current levels of demand there is no reason why this level of commitment cannot happen. It simply needs the will in the industry to make it happen. The alternative is another decade of poor quality housing, missed targets and another generation of consumers who think that a 100 year-old house is preferable to one built yesterday.