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Build More Houses: How And Not Why Is The Problem.

An issue that been casting a long dark shadow over Westminster since June is the Grenfell Tower disaster and what led to the tragedy occurring. It throws a despondent light on the state of public housing procurement and the implementation of building regulations through the entire UK.

Furthermore, calls to build (or renovate) more suitable affordable accommodation for sale or rent in areas of high housing demand continue to grow particularly in the South East of England and other large conurbations such as Manchester or Glasgow.

What shall be the government’s reaction and how can the construction industry respond effectively? These two questions are fraught with difficulties and riddled with interconnected restrictions and vested interests.

Government involvement in regulation and financing for public and private provision of housing will become the next big electoral battleground at all levels of government. It is a belter of a policy area which is politically up for grabs to the most competent policies and the winner will take all.

Whoever promotes the most successful policies will win election – Ruth Davidson is already promoting building new towns in Scotland (BBC, 2017). There is a definite demand from the millennial generation as high house prices and stagnant salaries have stopped many from affording even the deposit required, never mind a mortgage many times their salary.

The Conservative government is constrained by its NIMBY voters in the shires. The new old Labour party may favour nationalisation of key contractors or housebuilders which would increase costs to the public purse. However pursuing housing provision through local authority control using land available to them for redevelopment with streamlined planning consent may help get the initiative going.

If it’s so obviously needed and such a vote winner, what is the problem?

The sad answer is a complex mix of money, land, planning regulations and vested interests of industry incumbents and those NIMBY voters.

Notwithstanding a construction industry with a lack of capacity in material production such as brick making or skilled operatives/professionals required to manage and produce a huge increase in housing volumes to make a difference to the waiting list and market prices.

Large UK contractors like Carillion and Interserve are unfortunately in a poor financial state presently to be considered as preferred lead contractors. Other companies including foreign contractors may be willing but it is a big risk to bear unless the government shoulders the responsibility for material specification and allows for costs rising over a public construction programme when resources become scarce.

Private house-builders have just received a further £10 billion help from the government in their help-to-buy programme to 2021. The cheap equity loans do help create new homes however critics claims it helps private builders’ profits too. The issue of land banking to maintain profits of incumbent house builders helps restrain the number of completions and prices (and profits) rising at public expense.

The role of private housebuilders and quasi-public/private housing associations will continue to add to the provision of new homes but not enough by their own efforts, and certainly not from the 1960s onwards. This may please the anti-development lobby claiming environmental degradation but doesn’t help those who are homeless.

Planning restrictions will need to be eased. It may require building on green-belt land around the areas of highest demand with enough land released for development from local authorities or government departments with redundant or excess assets. Permissions will need to be streamlined by councils or central government resources deployed to reduce staff shortages. Finances will need to be raised- a quantitative easing programme for houses. It may indeed raise interests rates too as inflation may rise as a consequence.

Architectural design and construction supervision needs to improve to avoid shoddy built and quick to degenerate housing stock using inadequate materials. Here lies some of the biggest challenges as effective supervision are hard to enforce with temporary contract labour or an industry lack of spending on material research.

Materials tend to be composites from scrap or pulp compresses or extrusions using heating, gluing or stapling and plastics derived from oil. Concrete uses much energy to produce and isn’t bio-degradable but it’s an old and very versatile material with some proper imagination this time round perhaps a new revival could be achieved.

The challenges are wide ranging but the pressing social needs are there to provide housing in numbers not seen since the post-war years. The rewards are there too for politicians, financiers and construction professionals and workers. Maybe then the residents of Grenfell Tower needless deaths may have some address as so far there’s been little improvement since June.

LDC

References –
BBC News Scotland; (2017), “Ruth Davidson says Scotland ‘should build more new towns’, BBC UK, website accessed 3rd October 2017: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-41114547

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