Coronavirus has snatched away the momentum that was gathering behind UK housebuilding.

Last week, the Office for National Statistics released figures that revealed that the number of new homes built in England during 2019 reached 178,790 – a 13-year high.

However, estate agent Knight Frank is predicting that the supply of new private houses is set to drop by 35 percent this year due to reduced onsite activity. Since lockdown, housebuilders have downed tools on sites that collectively would deliver 250,000 homes. 

Faced with a looming crunch in house-building, ministers are supposedly in talks with the industry about extending the controversial Help to Buy scheme as part of a package of measures to kick-start development activity as lockdown is lifted. 

However subsidising first-time buyers will only get us so far. Fundamentally, we need a rethink of housing delivery – from planning to construction – with a view to embracing innovation and new technologies to boost productivity.

Some positive steps have already been taken by allowing councils to make planning decisions through “virtual” committees. 

This radical, digital-first solution is exactly the sort of policy that Blackstock Consulting along with property consultants Bidwells and global architects Perkins and Will called for in our Radical Regeneration Manifesto.

The paper, which brought together over 20 leading property investors and developers, including the likes of Legal & General, Argent, and Grosvenor, directly lobbied the Government to create an overarching delivery body for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc to speed up development. The Government’s response was the creation of four development corporations for the region, announced in the chancellor’s Budget in March.

In his upcoming planning white paper, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, has the opportunity to create a permanent digital planning framework that will drive efficiency and broaden engagement.

The future of UK planning must be digitally led in order to ensure the system is more inclusive.

We must leave behind the days where communities could only contribute by turning up to a local centre at a given time on a given day and instead allow people to engage with the planning process through their phone or tablet at a time that suits them. 

Yet digitising planning alone won’t deliver the homes Britain needs post-coronavirus. We need an Industrial Revolution in construction too. This means embracing offsite manufacturing – where homes are created in a factory along a production line, much like how cars are created – to deliver high quality, sustainable homes at speed and scale.

By taking the majority of the build stage away from the construction site, companies such as ilke Homes, a manufacturer whose factory in Yorkshire has the capacity to deliver 2,000 homes a year, are able to cut construction programmes in half. With most of the work being done in a dry, controlled factory environment, the build stage is far less likely to be delayed due to things such as adverse weather conditions and local complaints.

As well as reducing onsite traffic movement by 80 percent – therefore minimising the amount of harmful toxins being released by a constant flow of heavy goods vehicles – manufacturers such as ilke Homes are able reduce construction waste by 90 percent compared to traditional construction. And of the waste that is produced, offsite manufacturers can typically recycle up to 97 percent.

What’s more, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee estimate that homes created along a production line typically use between 20-30 percent less energy due to the precision manufacturing process creating a more air tight end product.

The reduced time on-site and improved energy performance delivered by offsite manufacturing is why many build-to-rent operators such as Greystar have been enthusiastic adopters, as it means quicker access to rents and reduced gross-to-net leakages. Since 2016, the US multifamily giant has amassed 1.2 million sq. ft. of factory-built residential space owned or under construction.

Much of this space has been delivered by Tide Construction and sister company, Vision Modular Systems, which assembles pre-fitted apartments at its Bedford factory. Projects by Tide and Vision for Greystar include 101 George Street in Croydon, now the world’s tallest modular building, and Greenford Quay, a collection of 397 factory-built rental apartments on the former site of GlaxoSmithKline’s west London headquarters.

Offsite manufacturing and a digital-friendly planning system together won’t plug the gap in supply caused by Covid-19. We also need to see more investment in affordable housing and greater support for emerging sectors such as build-to-rent and co-living. But it is clear that no industry can return to ‘business as usual’ post-virus and housebuilding shouldn’t be any different. Technology and innovation should be at the heart of the industry’s resurgence.