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5 years on from his first article, George Clarke revisits house building

It is nearly 5 years since I wrote my very first article for the Hub and the title was ‘Changing the way we build homes'.

I felt it’s time to revisit this subject to see what has changed and what hasn’t.

With housing, everything has to be seen in a political context because of the complexities of government legislation and well as national planning policies and building regulations.

For any significant, positive change to happen in housing the government (and local councils, combined authorities etc) have to lead and set the agenda.

So, let’s start with a look at government.

Have we condemned the young to living with their parents forever?

George Clarke George Clarke Architect, writer, TV presenter and Ecodan Ambassador

Carnage, instability and turbulence

Well, since 2018 we have had four Prime Ministers, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

We’ve had a staggering amount of carnage, instability and turbulence. Especially, with Liz Truss and her chancellor!

And when it comes to Housing Ministers, I’m not sure you would believe it but it’s been a merry-go-round and revolving door of ministers.

Since 2018 we’ve had Dominic Raab; Kit Malthouse; Esther McVey; Christopher Pincher; Stuart Andrew (he managed 5 months); Marcus Jones (2 months); Lee Rowley (7 weeks!); Lucy Fraser (3 months); and now we have Rachel Maclean.

Yes people, we have had 9, YES NINE housing ministers in the last 5 years!

And unbelievably we’ve had 6 different ministers hold, what is a staggeringly important post, in just over a year!

No wonder housing in the UK is a total mess.

No excuse for the housing crisis

Of course, in that time we have had a global pandemic. But that really is no excuse for a housing system that seems to be falling deeper and deeper into crisis. We can’t use covid as an excuse for the housing crisis.

The average UK house price in 2018 was £248,000. In February 2023 that’s figure was £288,000. That’s a £40,000 increase in just 5 years!

The gap between those lucky enough to be on the housing ladder already and those fighting to get onto the first step is getting greater and greater every year.

Homes are becoming more unaffordable as prices continue to rise and wages stagnate.

Where are the radical planning reforms and financial reforms to mortgages from government to get young people on onto the property ladder?

Why aren’t coming up with an entire range of brilliant, revolutionary policies that will genuinely begin to turn the tide of a shambolic housing system that Theresa May said in January 2018 was “broken”?

Our younger generations are locked into high-cost, short-term, private-rented accommodation with insecure tenencies unable to plan their future.

That is devastating for so many.

Just because the situation may seem hopeless, it doesn’t mean there is no hope.

George Clarke George Clarke Architect, writer, TV presenter and Ecodan Ambassador

Start a self-build revolution

Why aren’t we releasing land to create more self-build plots for young people to be able to build their own homes that can be paid for with new and innovative financial models?

Why aren’t we changing the damaging Right to Buy policy, which has taken millions of genuinely affordable homes out of the system and inflated house prices.

Why are planning policies so restrictive, lacking any innovation or creative thinking to the point where a parent finds it virtually impossible to build a home for their children at the end of their garden or on a piece of land adjoining their home?

Planning should encourage young people to be able to build their own homes.

No radical thinking

There is absolutely no radical thinking from this government (and many government’s before it!) to solve the housing crisis.

Until someone brilliant steps up to the plate, someone who really cares deeply about creating homes for everyone of all backgrounds and all financial positions in all parts of the country, I’m afraid very little is going to change.

I know it is depressing to hear, but things have got significantly worse in the last 5 years when it comes to creating safe, secure and stable housing for the citizens of Britain and that absolutely breaks my heart.

I do wonder why young people seem to just accept this.

Just because the situation may seem hopeless, it doesn’t mean there is no hope.

Why aren’t they taking to the streets in protest and organize marches to instigate change?

Have they simply resigned themselves to the fact they are going to be stuck in expensive, unstable private-rented accommodation for the rest of their lives, or worse still living with their parents into their late 30’s?

Quality is most important

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I always push for all homes to be built to the highest possible standards.

Quality is as important, if not more important, than quantity.

If we build quality homes, then they will stand the test of time.

That can only be good for those people who have worked and saved so hard to buy the house in the first place, because a good quality home lasts longer and requires less maintenance than a home built of lower quality materials.

A good quality home, that can last many generations, is also good for the environment as it doesn’t need to be replaced so quickly.

Manufactured homes

In 2018, I was pushing hard to promote homes that would be designed and manufactured in factories, in a similar way to the way we build cars.

The car industry has phenomenal levels of research and development, innovation and established supply chains to produce high-quality cars for so many people, even at a very affordable price point.

It made sense to me that housing could do something similar.

Build better quality houses in big factories, that could have multiple shifts and operate 7 days a week.

People with all kinds of abilities and disabilities could work in a better, cleaner and more controlled environment than on a messy, muddy building site.

Homes could run off a production line and be checked to the highest standards of quality control.

If it wasn’t perfect, then it wouldn’t leave the factory. (The problems this country has with ‘snagging’ of new build homes is massive!).

It all made sense to me.

It’s been tough for modular

But it has been a tough time for the factory-built, modern methods of construction, prefabrication, modular house-building industry.

I used to compare building a home in a factory with manufacturing cars, which have been built in factories for over 100 years.

It is a well-established industry where manufacturing lines have been perfected over many generations with billions and billions of pounds of capital investment.

However, to buy a car you don’t need land and you don’t need planning permission. You might need a relatively small loan to help you buy a car, but you don’t need a massive mortgage.

If you want to sell your car to someone else, you can sell it to anyone that lives anywhere else in the country.

You aren’t relying on selling to someone who only wants to drive your car in you local area.

You also don’t need to pay estate agents or lawyers to sell your car for you and if you want to buy another car for yourself, whether new or second-hand, you don’t need to pay stamp duty.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Building and selling a car to a first-time car-owner is absolutely nothing like building and selling a home to a first-time home-owner.

We need volume to make it viable

I was personally part of a company that pushed really hard to innovate and build modular homes, in a factory-controlled environment, in new and innovative ways, but we just couldn’t let get the volume of new homes we needed through the factory to make it economically viable.

Then there is Legal & General, who had hundreds of millions of pounds of investment behind them.

They entered into the ‘factory-built-modular homes’ market in 2016.

Their expectation was that homes could be precision engineered and manufactured in more controlled conditions, unaffected by bad weather, in a big clean, green, and efficient factory delivering homes quicker and to a higher quality than traditional forms of construction on muddy, outdoor building sites.

They had an impressive set up. I was very excited about the future of their business back in 2018.

Unfortunately, just a few weeks ago, Legal & General announced they are ceasing production of all new homes in their factory and it is highly likely the entire business will close with the loss of around 450 jobs.

Why? They said there were too many long planning delays on many sites they were involved with and therefore weak demand for their homes.

This is nuts.

The housing system is crying out for new build housing.

The government says we need to build 300,000 homes per year and we are currently well short of that.

One of the reasons house prices keep booming is because there is massive demand and not enough supply.

So, why is it that innovative companies who require a large order book and a large ‘volume’ of homes to sustain their factories are going to the wall when the government is crying out for more homes?

One answer would be for the government to build social housing again.

George Clarke George Clarke Architect, writer, TV presenter and Ecodan Ambassador

The need for council housing

One answer would be for the government to build social housing again.

The government, along with local councils and combined authorities could have placed orders for 100,000 social homes per year every year for the next 40 years.

Amazing, well-designed, precision-built, zero-carbon, social homes could have been manufactured creating a huge, genuinely affordable new housing sector in Britain for all of the hardworking people in this country who otherwise have no chance of living in a secure and stable home.

An ambitious government initiative on this scale would provide a secure and constant supply-chain to al the factories that require volume and full order books and it would replace the 4 million homes that have been sold under Right To Buy since the 1980’s.

Factories could have been established all over the country creating thousand and thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Until something this ambitious is announced to try and solve the massive home/affordability crisis,

I have to say, the future is not looking good at all for other players that are struggling in the factory-built, modular homes market.

Rehashing the same old ideas

I also think new government ministers have absolutely no idea what previous ministers have announced.

Or they’ve conveniently forgotten and believe that by packaging up a previous idea in a slightly different way it gives them an opportunity to make the same idea look like a new announcement!

In October 2016 the government published The Farmer Review called ‘Modernise or Die’, which called for a big change in how the industry builds new homes.

It recommended investment in ‘Modern Methods of Construction’ (MMC).

It clearly told government to create a pipeline of demand for new homes using modular and MMC.

It cried out for more innovation and more R&D and for higher skills in our industry.

All of this could have been solved. The private industry could have ploughed in so much more investment and the government could have turned the tide of an ever-worsening housing crisis, if they had simply placed huge orders for new social housing and released swathes of government owned land to build the housing on.

But they didn’t.

All 10 Downing Street and Ministers are interested in is the private housing sector and full home ownership.

They don’t give a monkey about genuinely affordable housing and social housing. 

Ignoring the Farmer Review

What is absolutely mind-boggling is that against this backdrop of the Farmer Review being virtually ignored by ministers and modular-home building companies really struggling or going bust because of lack of ‘volume’ going through their factories.

JUST THIS MONTH the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) announced a consortium (according to Construction News) “to engage the industry to examine ways to make MMC more accessible to the industry”.

On the 12th of May 2023 the DLUHC held a session with members of the construction sector “TO DISCUSS” the ways in which MMC could be standardised to help the industry.

DISCUSS? I’m flabbergasted! The industry already known what to do. We have been talking about it and actually trying to do it for years!

To make it work we need volume!

And THAT is what the government should be creating.

No more discussions.

The government should be investing billions of pounds (along with the private sector) in creating a big, beautiful and innovative supply chain to manufacture wonderful, life-changing, genuinely affordable homes for rent.

Homes for our hard-working, low-income population who are desperately struggling to get on the property ladder or who are trapped in a turbulent and expensive private-rental market.

We should be creating housing and communities where they can live safely, securely and ecologically for many years to come.

Time for change

The current system simply isn’t working.

It hasn’t worked for decades.

The UK Government has failed to provide housing for its’ population and remember, Housing is one of the 3 pillars of our welfare state, alongside health and education.


If they don’t I dread to think how much worse things will get and how the nation will react. 

George Clarke is an Architect, writer, TV presenter and Ecodan Ambassador