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Delivering Homes fit for Brits: This year’s big challenge

It has certainly been a turbulent year for the construction and housebuilding industry, punctuated by the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, the collapse of big contractors like Carillion and stagnant housebuilding rates. As we begin 2019, we need to first consider recent sector performance, the forecast for housing starts and the socio-economic challenges caused by our shifting political landscape. UKCO speaks to Chris Stanley, Housing Manager, Concrete Block Association about the challenges ahead.

A Modest Proposal

Looking forward, housing market growth is expected to be, at best, modest; not quite the ‘Tiggerish’ predictions made by the Chancellor in the 2017 budget. The Construction Products Association have forecast 1.6% and 0.8% growth in 2019 and 2020 respectively. According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, net additional housing grew by just 2% to 222,190 units in 2018, which does not bode well if we are to reach the government’s proposed target of 300,000 new homes by 2025.

Sir Oliver Letwin’s recently published report presents insightful recommendations on how the government could facilitate an increase in the build-out rate on large sites – by increasing the variety of housing offered – and suggests the introduction of more statutory powers to local planning authorities to enable this. This is all well and good, but the trouble is in the government’s ultimately limited ability to influence in detail a housing market where delivery is largely up to the private sector.

There are signs that things are improving, but when growth is this minimal, it does not take a lot to flip into neutral. If housebuilders are lacking in confidence due to the uncertain political climate, the Housing Minister needs to provide bigger incentives. As Letwin advocates, we urgently need a more joined-up approach where there is more effective coordination between government departments, agencies and private sector operators.

Safety First

Concerns about fire-resilience and compartmentation as a result of the Grenfell tragedy is also expected to lead to conversations about how we build new housing and what materials we use.

Post-Hackitt the onus on fire-resilience is far greater. Fire safety requires that buildings are sub-divided into discrete compartments to avoid the fire spreading, but not only do we need to deliver the required standards of fire resilience from day one, designers need to have the confidence that the resilience will be maintained through the life of a product. The best way of ensuring this is by choosing a product which is intrinsically fire-resistant.

Now that a ban on combustibles in external walls has been announced by the government, I predict this will be pushed much further. Currently the ban only applies to what are considered higher risk residential buildings, namely 18m and above. But this inevitably will be extended. Timber cannot hide any longer: stick timber and CLT are both combustible. Government statistics show timber frames have more extensive fires and an academic paper published in The Structural Engineer in January 2018 (Deeney et. al.) identifies serious shortcomings in resilience of CLT.

The government and regulators will have to implement the learnings and widen the scope to deliver the fire-resilience that society assumes it is getting from the built environment. Not just for cladding, and not just for high-rise builds, but across the board, and our industry will be all the better for it.

New Frontiers

There’s no doubt that Brexit is the single biggest threat to the construction industry in 2019. Fortunately, the block-making sector is protected from much of Brexit uncertainty, in fact, this uncertainty could potentially end up working in the sector’s favour. This is because concrete blocks are a local product made from local constituents with a short supply chain. This is in stark contrast with the competitor material – imported timber.

Already the timber industry is expressing concern over supply issues, currency fluctuations and overall costs. Therefore it is likely that the most direct impact of Brexit will be increased demand for local concrete blocks from housebuilders who want to minimise costs and remove uncertainty.

Skills Shortage

Although the block-making sector is largely buffered from Brexit, not everyone is so fortunate. Another finding from the Letwin report concerned workforce; that the supply of skilled workers is one of the key obstacles to increasing the velocity of build-out rate on large sites.

We endorse what Letwin has found: to deliver more housing we need more traditionally built masonry homes if we are to get anywhere near what government is targeting. In terms of skills, he recommends the government, the CITB and the housebuilders conduct tripartite discussions to create new training programmes and models of employment. Letwin calls this an opportunity to find a solution to a problem, which of course exists across the construction sector.

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