Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn: “Housing is not meeting the needs of our citizens”

Can innovation solve the housing shortage? A panel at Labour Party conference explores the challenges facing the industry. 

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The housing crisis has reached “incredible proportions” across all sectors of the industry, Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn has said.

Speaking at a Labour Party conference fringe event about the role of innovation in addressing the UK’s housing shortage, she and a panel of experts discussed the different alternatives in manufacturing and planning.

Research earlier this year from Heriot-Watt University found that the UK needs to build almost four million homes by 2031 – roughly 340,000 a year – if it is to meet demand. The Labour Party proposes to build ten million “genuinely affordable” homes over the course of ten years, according to its 2017 manifesto. But, at the panel sponsored by housing association Home Group, it was noted that traditional methods of housebuilding are unable to meet the current level of demand.

Modern hi-tech methods could bring additional capacity for smaller housebuilders, according to Craig Liddell, partnerships director at Ilke Homes, an offsite builder that mixes traditional methods of construction with factory technology. As well as tackling the problems with safety and quality control by constructing houses along a factory line-style of production, new innovations in technology could potentially cut running costs, reducing rent arrears.

Liddell argued that innovation could also aid in recruiting new talent into the industry. Despite non-traditional methods reducing the number of workers involved in construction, he explained, the industry still suffers from a skills shortage. Liddell stated that the average age of a bricklayer working in London is currently “approaching 50”.

“By adopting new technology, we can attract new talent,” he told the panel. “The construction industry is not currently an attractive industry for young people - we’re using some technology such as VR, AR and gaming so we can also attract a different type of person.”

Home Group is itself trialing five different methods of construction and housebuilding at an “innovation village” in Gateshead to combat the housing shortage. The project aims to build homes with increased speed through the implementation of smart technology and energy efficiency in so-called “modular houses”: a method that can construct houses in less than half the time of “bricks and mortar” builds, the firm claims. The company has pledged to build a new village of 35 modular houses composed of five different house types.

Home Group’s executive director Matt Forrest ended with a warning: simply building houses faster would still create a “whole series of other problems”. Finding the land to build on, raising the funds, and working with the public sector are all new issues that may arise. “All of these [problems] need to come together in a value chain where we’re innovating all along,” he added.