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The rush to offsite

Architect analysing housing plan

In the last 2 years the Government has put a lot of effort into normalising the practice of offsite manufacturing (OSM) and modern methods of construction (MMC).

A key reason for this encouragement has been the rising problem of a lack of affordable housing and homelessness across the UK. Is this likely to turn the tide in favour of widespread use of OSM/MMC?

Homes England, sponsored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), was founded in 2018 to accelerate the delivery of affordable housing across England and with a specific remit to focus on MMC. Their main objective is to increase the number of new homes built every year to 300,000 (the current number sits at 190,000).

When Boris Johnson became PM earlier this year and reshuffled his Cabinet, Robert Jenrick was appointed Secretary of State for MHCLG and Esther McVey was appointed the new Housing Minister.

In their first week, they each visited a different factory dedicated to building modular housing units. A clear message was sent out to the construction industry – offsite manufacturing (OSM) will be of great importance in the Johnson premiership. Mark Farmer’s words of warning to ‘modernise or die’ reverberate throughout the industry.

Couple this with Government incentives such as: the £170m Transforming Construction programme, the Local Authority Accelerated Construction programme and the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) launching the Modular Solutions framework and the scene appears to be set. More housing is needed and the Government intends to meet the targets that have been set by utilising OSM/MMC.

However, when considering a recent report from the National Housing Federation that states that 340,000 new homes, including 145,000 social housing units, are needed every year for the next 10 years, it appears as though there is still plenty of work to be done. So, even if these Government incentives successfully encourage the uptake of OSM/MMC, will it even allow for housing to be built at the speed which is necessary?

Homes England has identified the build-to-rent and affordable rented sectors as the areas where OSM is likely to have the biggest impact, partly because of the standardisation of the housing units in this type of development.

The more units of the same house type a factory produces, the quicker they roll off the line. It is estimated that once a factory is running at optimum capacity, homes can be turned out every two hours.

It has been suggested that the UK Government should adopt a Singapore style modular mandate approach to housebuilders benefiting from Help to Buy. Whether this would encourage more housebuilders to adopt MMC or deter them from using Help to Buy would be purely speculative, but the Government doesn’t seem keen to pursue this suggestion.

So long as Government keeps on the same path it has paved these past couple of years, MMC/OSM will continue to be normalised and utilised. However, whether it will be picked up at the rate at which appears necessary is yet to be seen.

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