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Welborne garden village

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Industry needs to wake up to the need for speed on housing

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Contractors will have difficulty in supplying faster housing while developers and planners continue to conceive only of long-term delivery, says Jason Ruddle, chief operating officer at Elecosoft.

Recently the latest garden village plan was submitted for Welborne, Hampshire. The drawings look great, the green quotient is high with swathes of tree-lined roads and open spaces.

We have little doubt that this clearly well-planned submission will please the local planning authority (after a tweak or two) and ultimately create a sustainable garden community that will, as the submission states, “serve future generations” well.

It isn’t the only similar announcement: just last week one housebuilder gained approvals for a new £2bn garden village on the outskirts of Cardiff. There will undoubtedly be many more.

Everyone recognises that the UK has a housing crisis and a desperate need for new homes, especially at the affordable end of the market. It is good to see schemes progress, serving both rural areas and those closer to urban centres.

There’s just one thing that niggles, as we observe the flurry of activity. And that’s the estimated 20-year completion deadlines of both initiatives. I am bemused as to why multi-decade time frames remain at the centre of key schemes. There is a stark absence of acknowledgement of the urgency of delivery in the public commentary. And few answers about how soon they might start to deliver housing value in advance of their completion.   

The housing White Paper ‘Fixing our Broken Housing Market’, launched last month, was positioned as a way to kick-start the construction industry into action. It was explicit about the need for speed. The need for rapid building action after planning permissions was second only on the priority list to the need for greater volumes. It was directive too: planners were instructed to plan for more homes, while the construction sector was called to embrace more modern methods. 

The construction sector has come in for much scrutiny recently. Evidence on every front is telling it to speed up and invest to alter legacy approaches to working practices and building methodologies. 

McKinsey’s recent report into construction industry competitiveness calls for a “productivity revolution” – highlighting just how far behind other sectors the construction industry may be falling in terms of digitisation, leaner production methodologies and automation. 

It is not the only call to action: last year’s Farmer report also focused on the modernisation imperative, especially on the negative impact that old and expensive ways of using labour may have on the sector’s profitability and sustainability overall.  

The strategy for speeding up overall construction has focused to a large degree on improving the actual build process – but there is more to it than that. Boosting delivery must also involve smarter planning, and more efficient project management of every aspect of a development, not only the construction aspect. 

Speeding up the overall delivery of large housing volumes will take action not only from contractors but from developers, national housebuilders, their architects and designers, and local authority planners too.

This problem isn’t something that any one group can fix, certainly not construction contractors. From what we see among our customers, construction planners are getting into a readier state than most for acceleration, having spent several years and considerable effort gearing up for BIM and the speedier, more informed, more collaborative processes it should engender.

We are also seeing significant increases in the adoption of offsite manufacturing and timber frame, which are indicative of both interest in, and willingness to, increase efficiency and speed of delivery.  

There is no reason why contractors, which are so very used to working in a multi-phase manner, meeting myriad mid-term deadlines and handing over tranches of completed development to clients cannot support the need for speedier delivery.

But, for them to step up to the mark, the phased delivery of as many homes as are feasible, at the earliest possible opportunity, within larger developments, must be built into the very concept of new developments at the outset.

Filling the UK’s housing gap means ensuring that development schemes start to deliver within a couple of years, not decades. They must include not just acknowledgement of the fast delivery imperative, but concrete plans for doing so. The country, its young families and upcoming generation of occupants for homes, simply can’t wait 20 years.  

The habit of blaming construction contractors for slow progress needs a rethink. Unless developers, local authority planners and contractors all wake up to acceleration, contractors alone won’t be in a position to deliver on the aims being set for them. Without a rethink by all, the impetus behind the new housing policy could well simply fizzle out.

I am bemused as to why multi-decade time frames remain at the centre of key schemes. There is a stark absence of acknowledgement of the urgency of delivery in the public commentary. – Jason Ruddle, Elecosoft