Why is construction so backward?

The UK government should ditch the sustainababble and build the prefab houses Britain needs.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

Now that New Labour has established that there’s no room even to bury the dead, its obsession with protecting the land promises to drive house prices still higher for the living.

Home Office minister Paul Goggins says there is so much pressure on space that we may have to start burying people four deep. With the White Paper Burial Law and Policy in the Twenty-First Century: The Need for a Sensitive and Sustainable Approach, he has launched a six-month public consultation, complete with 37 separate questions demanding a response, to ensure that proposals to reuse burial grounds do not inflame religious feeling. Whatever the outcome, it looks likely that a new inspectorate will be created to ensure that the 25,000 burial grounds in England and Wales are properly maintained and comply with standards (1).

As in the accommodation for corpses, so in the accommodation of the living. Just as David Blunkett’s Home Office refuses to countenance graveyards in the Green Belt, so the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) regularly indicts ‘suburban sprawl’. Instead of building anew, deputy PM John Prescott wants the reuse of old houses built on cemetery-like brownfield sites. It is all set out in his White Paper, Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future, published in February 2003.

The latest commandments from the ODPM, in the shape of this month’s 103-page report on England’s northern cities, Making It Happen: The Northern Way, clearly reveal Prescott’s agenda. Straight after his self-congratulatory foreword, the report proclaims: ‘At Manchester Salford alone, by March 2006 we expect the pathfinder to deliver 1,000 new homes constructed and occupied, 13,400 homes refurbished, repaired or improved; and 1,700 redundant and obsolete properties cleared.’ (2)

Here ‘the pathfinder’ is just one of New Labour’s myriad of confusing urban initiatives, each with its own brand, pot of funds and officious bureaucrats in planning and design. But the ODPM’s point is clear enough. In Salford and no doubt elsewhere, new homes can only be allowed to account for something like 1,000 – 6.21 per cent – of every 16,100 dwellings put up, done up or knocked down. New kinds and new numbers of houses cannot be allowed to desecrate our beloved countryside.

  • Not a shortage of land, but a shortage of homes

Prescott’s chief adviser on urban affairs is the architect and Labour peer Lord Richard Rogers. For him, people have despaired of British cities and are flooding out of them. In the process, they use the countryside up with wasteful, low-density settlements by Barratt or worse. What government must do is get people back into cities:

‘In the Milton Keynes/South Midlands area, which the government has identified as one of four “growth areas” in the sustainable communities plan, huge numbers of new houses are to be built over the next few years’, writes Rogers. ‘Many will be on valuable greenfield sites. But it is wrong to use green areas until all the usable brownfield land – of which there is plenty in nearby Birmingham – is built on. A massive opportunity to transform the empty quarters of our second city is being overlooked.’ (3)

To check the alleged flight to the countryside, Rogers wants to impose Value Added Tax on greenfield housing developments (4). Yet the evidence for an urban exodus is mixed. The ODPM’s initiative on England’s eight ‘Core Cities’ reports the following relative changes of population:

Per cent population change, 1991-2001: (5)
Liverpool -7.0
Newcastle -5.0
Nottingham -3.6
Manchester -3.3
Bristol -2.2
Birmingham -1.9
Sheffield -1.3
Leeds +1.3

For most cities, the departures have been pretty negligible. Moreover, ‘the rate of population decline is slowing and in several places the trend is starting to be reversed’ (6). Thus in the Core Cities, together with Glasgow, Reading, London and elsewhere, some of today’s yuppies have been lured back to inner-city areas by developers who have turned empty office blocks into luxury apartments (7).

So we are not overrunning the land, as Rogers imagines. Rather, single-person households are multiplying; immigration is relatively buoyant; and most importantly, Britain’s love affair with GM-free land is running at unprecedented levels. Result? The long-term prospect for house prices looks grim. No doubt the internet bank Egg has its own reasons for wanting young people to save more for their first house. Yet Egg may be right that, by 2011, the age of the average first-time British buyer will rise from 34 to 36 – or that the average deposit on such a house will be £32,000, or 85 per cent of what a 36-year-old might expect to earn then (8).

What Frederick Engels described as The Housing Question has now become so troublesome that Gordon Brown himself has commissioned a report into it. At his behest, Kate Barker, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, has already found out something very interesting about the 707,000 homes planned for the Rest of South East (RoSE) area by 2016. Far from concreting over vast expanses of undeveloped land, that many homes will take up just 1.5 per cent of RoSE, even with accompanying infrastructure (9).

Much, though not all, of Barker’s analysis leads to the conclusion that it is Britain’s backward planning system that accounts for its expensive homes. Much, too, suggests that fault lies with weak production volumes and weak innovation on the part of its building industry.

There is a shortage, not of land for building on, but of homes that people want to live in. Yet more than burgeoning demand and faltering supply lie at the root of extortionate prices for new homes, old houses and the repair and refurbishment of old houses. Investment in normal capitalist companies has not been very attractive since the millennium; so UK financial institutions have preferred to go fleecing consumers on the mortgage market. Still, the state of housing supply in Britain reveals not just the collapse of local authority construction over the past 40 years, but also where New Labour’s biblical commitment to land and environmentalism has brought everyone who might ever want to buy a house.

  • How to kill off-site manufacturing with kindness

England is building 130,000 new homes a year. In the 1960s, the annual total for Britain exceeded 400,000. Things have got so bad that the government has even starting mentioning ‘the p-word’: prefabrication. The idea is that, to brush up its modernising credentials, New Labour should coquette with those 15 housebuilders who are the UK’s unrecognised pioneers in the off-site manufacturing (OSM) of homes in this country.

It is all very duplicitous. Ministers fear that to fund an investment in houses on the scale required would mean subsidising house factories with billions of pounds of state support. As if that kind of Wilsonian socialism isn’t anathema enough, ministers also fear that any consequent puncturing of the UK’s house price bubble could lead to disastrous economic and political consequences. The result is that the official approach to OSM is to praise it a little, but spend a lot more time pointing out its faults. Instead of construction we get condescension.

At The Housing Forum conference in London’s Docklands on 3 February 2004, delegates learned just how modest Government ambitions are with OSM. As Tim Venables of Imperial College, London, pointed out, Britain’s existing specialists in OSM don’t so much manufacture complete houses as supply parts of homes to Wimpey and other on-site builders of the old school. That is not their fault; nor is it their fault that they are responsible for only 17,000 homes a year, or that the talk is only of them racking this up to 30,000 a year. As a report by The Housing Forum makes clear, capacity utilisation in the OSM sector is only 70 per cent, in the main because factory owners are not confident of sustained demand and are not confident, either, that, public perceptions of their product will be favourable (10).

John Prescott is committed to build perhaps 4000 homes under the rubric of the P-word. He continually denounces ‘one size fits all’ approaches to housing. He relentlessly insists that all design be local, local and local in orientation, Given all these things, the OSM industry’s cautious attitude to any putative boom in mass-produced housing is no surprise. Indeed at the Housing Forum conference, even the word ‘standardisation’ was deemed likely to put the ignorant, choice-loving masses off mass-produced homes; instead, the term ‘interchangeable’ was preferred, as a means of bringing out the potential that undoubtedly exists for the customisation of off-site manufactured house components to personal taste.

At the conference, speakers fretted over how off-site methods do not allow home buyers to change the location of electrical power points at the last minute. They worried, too, that bricking over the facades of manufactured homes once they arrive on site would divert scarce and expensive bricklaying skills from conventional housing developments. But these objections are so much chaff. People have a right to insist on late changes, brick facades, or indeed any façade; but that is their financial responsibility too. To the extent that there is a shortage of skilled trades such as bricklaying, higher wages and an end to government/union witch-hunts against immigrant building workers would make a big difference.

For customisation to be economically viable, production volumes must be high. And for public perceptions of mass-produced homes to be favourable, people must be able easily to buy large, very advanced ones, stuffed with IT connections, not subject to punitive Stamp Duties, and not subject to arbitrary veto through this country’s Byzantine planning system, either.

High production volumes must be achieved: if real house price inflation is to be brought down to zero, Kate Barker says, Britain needs an extra 240,000 homes a year (11). Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says 225,000 new homes a year are needed in England alone (12). And those volumes can be achieved. Nearly 60 years on from the Attlee Government’s leaky ‘prefabs’, a 21st century mixture of car industry robotics, clever IT and funky new materials makes prefabricated houses a completely different proposition. If the Norman Foster Toyota Mark 4 were to compete on global markets with the Richard Rogers Ford Dagenham Mark 5, new houses could and would have to be better insulated, more wired up and more durable than any on-site brickie, scaffolder or plasterer could make a one-off.

Would that mean a one-size-meets-all approach? Looking at the variegated componentry, colours, textiles and finishes available in Japan and in the world motor industry, our Post-Modern worriers should sleep easy. The issue with UK housing supply is not so much technical, nor even economic, as political.

  • Does building more homes mean abolishing the monarchy?

In a cover story in the weekend’s FT Magazine on 7 February 2004, James Harkin spelt out just how much John Prescott is captivated, not only by the virgin fields of Lord Rogers, but by the Buddhist visions of Prince Charles. In the twilight of Margaret Thatcher’s famous property-owning democracy, the demand that the monarchy be abolished has never been more relevant.

Prince Charles’s own version of a Disneyland Shangri La, the hand-built Poundbury model village in Dorchester, has raised the level of three things, according to Prescott: the architectural expectations of the public, those of building industry professionals, and the overall ‘quality of architecture, design and planning’ in the UK (13). What Prescott means, as Harkin makes clear, is that Poundbury’s crafted buildings, such as its new outlet for excellence in complementary medicine, should be and indeed already are an architectural and communitarian inspiration to us all. Similarly, Poundbury’s prominent displays of tasty, royal-branded Duchy Originals biscuits in its village shop must, no doubt, have improved public debate about and the professional practice of design. As for planning, the injunction to Poundbury’s aged inhabitants to have more children shows, we can be sure, an exemplary mix of discretion and foresight (14).

As the Prince himself maintains of his architectural preferences, ‘I’m beginning to think that I’m a little avant garde’ (15). Already the government’s environmental police forces, such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in England, ensure that all new buildings, few though they may be, are interrogated over their relatively miniscule carbon emissions. In the same way, the Prince Charles rhetoric of local, local, local control over planning decisions will run right through New Labour’s forthcoming election manifesto.

From start to finish, the priorities of the House of Windsor are those of the Government. Those priorities highlight anything naturalistic, or spiritual, or legal, and always downplay the need for serious investment in new, off-site housing processes and products that will disrupt the inflationary status quo. Thus London mayor Ken Livingstone, in the London Plan he launched on 10 February 2004, merely wants to preserve the Green Belt…and sue the capital’s 32 local authorities if they do not meet his paltry target of 30,000 new homes a year.

Livingstone has threatened councils that they must also meet his target that half of all new housing in London must be ‘affordable’. But for all this legally enforced cheapness and inclusiveness, Prescott’s royalist commitment to the Poundbury one-off approach to housing looks set to condemn a generation of young people to impossible house prices – and to spending much of their adult lives living with Mum and Dad.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

A curse on all his houses, by Jennie Bristow

Farmers turned park-keepers, by James Heartfield

(1) Burial law and policy in the twenty-first century: the need for a sensitive and sustainable approach (.pdf 277 KB), Home Office, 15 January 2004

(2) Making it happen: the northern way (.pdf 2.27 MB), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2 February 2004, p7

(3) ‘Design is the key to an urban renaissance’, Richard Rogers, Financial Times, 19 January 2004

(4) ‘Design is the key to an urban renaissance’, Richard Rogers, Financial Times, 19 January 2004

(5) Competitive European cities: where do the core cities stand? (.pdf 444 KB), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, January 2004, p18

(6) Competitive European cities: where do the core cities stand? (.pdf 444 KB), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, January 2004, p18

(7) ‘Developers have grand design on old blocks’, William Hall, Financial Times, 7 February 2004; ‘Offices-as-homes conversions slow as market recovers’, Juliana Ratner, Financial Times, 7 February 2004

(8) House prices to tear apart ‘social fabric’ of Britain, egg, 22 August 2002

(9) Barker review of housing supply: securing our future housing needs, interim report (.pdf 482 KB), Treasury, 10 December 2003, p135

(10) Manufacturing Excellence: UK Capacity in Offsite Manufacturing, Tim Venables, James Barlow and David Gann, Housing Forum, January 2004, p25

(11) Barker review of housing supply: securing our future housing needs, interim report (.pdf 482 KB), Treasury, 10 December 2003, p135

(12) Land for Housing: Current Practice and Future Options, James Barlow, Ken Bartlett, Alan Hooper and Christine Whitehead, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 26 March 2002

(13) Quoted in ‘The Buddha of Balmoral’, James Harkin, Financial Times, 7 February 2004

(14) Quoted in ‘The Buddha of Balmoral’, James Harkin, Financial Times, 7 February 2004

(15) Quoted in ‘The Buddha of Balmoral’, James Harkin, Financial Times, 7 February 2004

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Topics Politics


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