Our ‘Residential Delivery Capacity in the UK’ seminar this week had the strapline ‘the burning platform’. But a reminder came from Ken Dytor, one of the day’s panellists and managing director of regeneration specialists Urban Catalyst, that the platform has been burning for some time now. In his words, “Shortfall isn’t a new topic. They were talking about this at ULI conferences
a decade ago”.

A way out of the ongoing squeeze was poetically underlined by Dytor’s reflection that the fledgling idea of a build to rent sector was the talk of the town at that same conference ten years back. With the burgeoning private rented sector starting to play a key part in adding to the government’s much-heralded annual target of 200,000 new homes, the conference focused on another future for the industry: the prospect of modular construction.

Panel moderator and HTA Design partner Simon Bayliss caught the mood of the conference when he described it as a “magic moment now” for offsite construction. Certainly the technique has the potential to ease the industry’s skills gap headache, with its efficiency benefits also being heralded. Professor Nicholas Whitehouse MBE, executive group member of Build Offsite, told the
conference that manual housebuilding is actually becoming more labour intensive – moving in the wrong direction! Whitehouse summed the comparative advantages of modular: “Done well, offsite construction is faster, safer, greener, and uses skills more effectively”.

But with Jeff Maxted of BLP Insurance revealing that the feeling of insurers on modular construction is still only lukewarm, there is a recognition that offsite still has some way to go and can’t be counted as a certain silver bullet for the industry. As such, panellists emphasised the importance of other ways of unlocking land and smoothing the path for further schemes. Heading up the forthcoming £1.4bn regeneration of Purfleet on the Thames Riverside, which works closely with the local Thurrock Borough Council, Dytor said a key method of obtaining public land for development schemes was paying close attention to the social infrastructure within a project. “Houses aren’t communities – they are constituent parts,” Dytor said. “Remember that
housing delivery is not the be all and end all: if you build the housing around the social infrastructure in your development, rather than vice versa, it will give local authorities the tick boxes they want to see in developments in terms of skills, jobs and local service provision”.

With the Purfleet redevelopment featuring a £200m pot for social infrastructure and a deal wherein the local council provides the land but has access to the profit streams and benefits from the public facilities onsite, the question was posed whether this was a model for how developers could work with local authorities. Fellow panellists affirmed the question. Philip Barnes, planning director at Barratt Developments, said as the UK’s largest housebuilder around a quarter of their schemes were done on public sector land. Wendy Stokes, director of Ealing Council-owned Broadway Housing, added that around 60 percent of Ealing’s work was done as a joint venture with registered providers or developers, saying that councils are increasingly “keen to retain land and long-term income streams in housing developments.

“They don’t want to sell off the family silver.” Past unlocking the public land itself, the procurement process was highlighted as an unheralded issue. Dytor said that while planning was commonly citedas a developer bugbear, the extensive consultation process with locals and council departments in Purfleet had dodged many of the common bullets associated with planning, while procurement had posed a bigger issue.

“The daunting amount of time sometimes involved in due process can really intimidate investors and be a big headache from the development side.” All agreed that pragmatism on the part of local authorities in the procurement process was key to generating further development. Dytor endorsed Thurrock Borough Council as “first class”, emphasising that investors will gravitate to the areas that deliver.

While there were no easy answers to how local authorities systematically improve the process of working with developers to build on public land, there was tentative enthusiasm from the audience that the industry would meet the challenges associated with obtaining public land and reap strong benefits from innovations in offsite development. Few believed that the government’s target of a million new homes by 2020 would be reached, but the mood seemed to be that the 200,000 annual target could be hit. If the solutions can be adapted, there seems no reason why housing can’t shift from a burning platform moment to a sector on fire.