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Government adviser urges new focus on modular housing

Words: Huw Morris

The government must focus on modular housing and put more energy into encouraging offsite manufacturing or risk making the construction skills crisis worse, says a government adviser.

Mark Farmer, author of the joint DCLG-BEIS Farmer Review, which warned the construction sector needed “to modernise or die”, said current measures for tackling the housing crisis are “shifting deckchairs on the Titanic”. Offering greater incentives to small builders will merely use the same construction professionals as major developers.

“Incentivising small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will have the benefit of opening up more smaller lot size housing development sites that volume housebuilders (VHBs) aren’t attracted by,” Farmer said. “But this fundamentally misses the point that the SMEs and VHBs tap the same finite labour force – the same brickies and sparkies have just moved from small sites to big sites over the past 10 years.

“Small builders are in fact small developers – there is no magic untapped pool of construction resource sitting there idle because it can’t get a site, a planning consent or a loan to build a few houses on a small plot. You will therefore cannibalise the workforce that currently delivers most new homes in the UK, which will also stoke further build cost inflation on labour rates and the current deterioration in build quality will continue.

Instead, Farmer called on the government to incentivise ‘hybrid industrialisation’, where homes are part-created in factories then assembled onsite.

“The more demand you create, the cheaper it will get, and digitally assured processes will create a host of exciting new career opportunities for youngsters and retraining options for existing workers,” he added. “When you combine this with using the SME sector, you get really interesting opportunities around high-quality custom-build like in Germany.”

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