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Modern House Building: Some Sense At Last?

4 November 2016

Chris Coxon EurocellIt’s clear from the title of Mark Farmer’s report that he isn’t going to pull any punches. His examination of the construction labour market, with a particular focus on housing, is called Modernise or Die. Chris Coxon, Head of Marketing at Eurocell, considers his findings.

Farmer, CEO of a consultancy called Cast (set up in January to advise on residential investment) points out that we are at a point of great risk – and at the same time great opportunity. The Government is calling for a huge hike in the number of houses we construct; the demographics of construction workers mean that the industry will lose 620,000 people in the next decade to retirement; and then there’s the challenge of digitisation, harnessing new technology, ‘pre-manufacturing’ and how we can use it to radically rethink the way we organise and deliver projects in the built environment.

Modernise or Die – aka The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model – talks a lot of sense. And, unlike its predecessor reports by Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan, it doesn’t put the onus on the industry to change itself, recognising that housing currently depends on huge numbers of SMEs. Rather: it explains why Government policy needs to drive the changes to stimulate new thinking and practices.

Farmer wants to see a defined pipeline of housing projects, driving procurement methods that encourage innovation through long-term relationships between developers and supply chains. And he wants the housing sector to act as a test bed for wide-scale adoption of what he calls ‘pre-manufacture’: offsite, modern methods of construction, or the ‘flying factory’ approach where temporary manufacturing facilities are set up close to big projects.

Government policy, he suggests, could encourage institutional investment and development of housing as a means of encouraging more pre-manufacture; or it could stimulate more use of pre-manufacture by housing associations; or it could directly commission pre-manufactured homes; or all three.

For suppliers like Eurocell, the Farmer report feels like a breath of fresh air. There are innovative ideas and approaches out there, but the frustration has been that without the benefit of scale, these ideas cannot be taken on, developed and widely adopted.

As a company that works with many highly-skilled and competent SMEs, we also welcome Farmer’s observations about the failures of the current training regime: he points out that the major contractors draw down more than their fair share of CITB funding, even though they employ few tradespeople. We need to recognise the role that SMEs play in training and developing the next generation of workers, who will need a different set of skills for the digital age, and we must develop a model that incentivises them.

Let’s hope that the Government and the housing industry act on Farmer’s recommendations and grasp this opportunity to modernise. As manufacturers, we must be ready to support and innovate in partnership with all the other parts of the supply chain.

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