Speaking at a housebuilding summit, the government minister vowed to get more homes built more quickly by promoting modular construction – new-age prefabs.
“New methods of production have huge potential,” he said. “We need to encourage off-site manufacture to make it cost-effective.”
The sentiment was right, but the time frame for actually building modular homes has been more than slightly delayed. John Prescott made that statement sixteen years ago.
The latest government has tried to move things along and has decided to invest £30m of public cash directly into ILKE Homes, which claims it will produce over 2,000 homes next year, and 5,000 in 2021.
This is going to be quite a leap. Of the 193,000 homes built last year, only 1,000 were fully modular. Insurance giant Legal & General, which started its own modular housebuilding arm in 2015, has accumulated more than £76m in losses delivering just eight homes. A great deal has been spent on research and development, but mass production is still some way off.
Mark Farmer, an industry veteran who has recently appointed the government’s MMC tsar identified housebuilding as being under threat from a perfect storm of non-existent research and development and increasing shortages of labour as brickies retire – and the need for innovation has only got more pressing.
One problem that will need to be addressed is the stigma surrounding the idea of prefabs from the 1960s. According to Farmer, “Everyone recoils in horror. We have to decouple that mental image.”
It is going to take some time before buyers will readily accept prefab homes, although affordability will obviously impact their appeal.
Modular homes may be the answer, but as one party put it, “It’s a bit like a nuclear fusion, always just over the horizon and the answer to everything, but never quite in reach.”
Their time will come, but as we said, don’t hold your breath.