The Ministry of Housing’s promise to “end rough sleeping by 2027” is either insultingly insincere, or commendably ambitious. This depends on how you view the fact that Ministers making this big pledge are likely to be doing something very different once the time comes to see whether the goal has been met.
The problem is daunting – Crisis estimates there are over 9,000 people sleeping rough in the UK, but this is only the most visible symptom. Councils are currently looking after over 79,000 homeless families in emergency accommodation.
However, could modular construction provide the answers – not only to achieving the 350,000 homes the wider UK needs yearly, but also those that homeless people have an even more urgent need for?
The modular solution
Initiatives such as a new collaboration between the London Boroughs called PLACE (Pan-London Accommodation Collaborative Enterprise) may be the key. It is being run by a non-for-profit dedicated to tackling the problem using modular solutions, and indicative of central Government’s focus on letting local decision-making tackle issues rather than advancing built solutions centrally.
Backed by £11m from the GLA, PLACE is thought to have £75m to invest in provide good-quality, “precision-manufactured” accommodation – as opposed to quickly erected, mediocre boxes, and has sought tenders from the housing sector. It is committed to using modular construction solutions to provide temporary homes on ‘meanwhile’ sites across the capital, i.e. which have been earmarked for use e.g. transport, but haven’t been realised.
Modular housing is of course much quicker, more efficient to build, quieter and cleaner. It’s argued to be ‘the future’, although many housebuilders will struggle to adapt to the new factory-oriented methods and change their supply chains and methods in time to embrace the initial momentum. It’s probably a threat to many smaller housebuilders in fact, and an annoyance to the bigger boys who are very comfortable with their ways of doing things.
However PLACE is offering an attractive prize to the industry if they can step up and deliver the modular goods. Mark Baigent, the organisation’s director, said: “Our aim is to challenge the housing design and construction industry to create an innovative and high-quality product to meet London’s needs head-on.”
Meanwhile, the Government has targeted £50m at creating new homes outside the capital for London’s homeless (people moving on from refuges), and the new post-Grenfell social housing Green Paper focuses on “rebalancing the relationship between tenants and landlords,” rather than housing solutions. In this context, more bottom-up initiatives like PLACE will be essential in seeing modular realise its potential for tackling the most acute housing needed by our society
As commentators such as Mark Farmer of developer Cast have pointed out, the big issue remains land availability. Any number of modular providers are waiting in the wings to deliver the buildings themselves (and will be even keener given the recent poor manufacturing figures showing an industry in recession). Unlocking the door might mean disruptive and innovative methods of subverting the normal barriers to land, so we can provide the homes vulnerable people need, where they need them.