Programme Updates

Ideas to Build a Better Britain: So what, so far?

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Over the course of the last year, BRE Group and Jericho Chambers have run a series of roundtables across the nation under the collective title, “What kind of Britain are we building?”

Starting in London, events were held in Edinburgh, Manchester, Coventry, Belfast and Swansea. This think piece has been co-created by that community consisting of policy-makers, academics, house-builders, elected politicians, media and practitioners – among others. Their input was invaluable, and we want to take a moment to thank them and recognise them for all of their thoughtful work.

15 minute read
35 minutes of interviews and audio 

 

From youth to lengthy experience: how do we shape the future of our built environment?

Interviews with Paul Morrell (ex-Building Czar), Peter Caplehorn (CPA), Gwyn Roberts, Gillian Charlesworth (both BRE Group), Joseph Daniels (Project Etopia)

Summary of proposals to build a better Britain from roundtable participants:

  • A New Deal when it comes to social housing in the UK even a new National Agency For Housing.
  • A new regulatory framework fit for 21st century Britain. Not only certification for the built environment but a recognition that the rolling back of standards since deregulation from the 1980s has produced adverse effects not just in safety.
  • Value-based procurement. An end to the race to the bottom on price when tendering for construction projects – a recognition that if something is worth doing it is worth doing well.
  • Localism and consultation. Homes not units with sustainability at the front and centre.
  • Skills. This has been highlighted as a problem for decades. There remains a profound lack of properly trained and qualified people to create a better built environment in the UK.
  • Productivity. A step change in the efficiency with which we build. The Industrial Strategy needs to redouble its efforts as it seeks to construct buildings 50% faster, 33% cheaper and with half the lifetime carbon emissions.
  • Social value. A new metric to measure social value across the lifetime of buildings that goes beyond construction cost.

Clockwise from top left: Edinburgh, Coventry, Manchester, Belfast

During the course of twelve months of these exploratory two-hour discussions we have heard directly from nearly 150 experts: planners, architects, sustainability experts, fuel poverty and homelessness campaigners, civil servants, developers, builders – big and small – and politicians.

So, what have we learned? Almost all were joined in a sense that, as a nation, when it comes to our buildings we can and should do better. Paul Morrell, formerly the government’s construction advisor from 2009 to 2012 and a man with more than four decades experience in the industry set the scene at the first roundtable in London a year ago when he said:

“I think there is reasonable consensus as to the kind of Britain we should be building: one that creates places and spaces that allow people to be at their best, and assets that are affordable, durable and sustainable. Sometimes we manage, almost by chance, to do that, but more often we don’t, and buildings that are assessed after occupation are repeatedly shown to fall short of the expectations held out when they were designed and built.

“Some of this is the result of problems that are structural, and some are cultural, but in both respects, the absence of a feedback loop, and the data it would produce is fatal to the ability to learn and improve. Data alone won’t fix everything, and we have to strive for improvements on all fronts, but without that data, the truth is that we don’t really know what kind of Britain we are building. The question then is not so much what would make things better, but rather what might make those things happen.

“Although there is no real equivalence in the consequences, I think the structural and cultural problems that led to both Grenfell and the demise of Carillion were well known beforehand, both to those working in the industry and to government.” His critique went further. He went on to say that if the building industry were like the automobile industry it would have been deemed not fit-for-purpose a long time ago. “The construction industry has a recall rate on buildings that would be a national scandal in other sectors, such as automotive. The fact is that virtually no building performs as it should.”

He felt that it should not have come as a surprise (as it apparently did at Grenfell) that thirty to forty companies can be involved in making one building. It takes as many or more to make a car or aeroplane. The difference is that in construction nobody owns the whole process, and the industry’s response to customer (and social) need lacks integration.

Neither was he convinced that arguments about red tape are the hindrance that many free-market advocates state they are. “Standards that help us build better and that protect people from harm are there to improve outcomes, and it is a category error to characterise them as regulatory red tape, as many politicians do,” he said.

A still more compelling issue for Morrell is that building is not done ‘to purpose’, “We simply are not designing and building with a genuine understanding of the real purpose of the asset in mind” he stated, continuing: “As just one challenging example, should a prison be constructed to contain people or to reduce recidivism? Only when we are clear about the answers to questions like that will be building the right kind of Britain, and one that delivers value over its whole life.”

The original London roundtable

Housing has always been front and centre of the typical Briton’s mind – everyone wants her or his proverbial castle – but it has recently returned to British politics with vigour. (A lack of new home building was one of the principal reasons given by Theresa May for the Brexit vote in 2016.) Falls in home ownership have driven it there – among the young, ownership has dropped to just 27% from 65% two decades previously. Today’s families headed by a 30-year-old are half as likely to own a home as their parents were at the same age. In recent decades the background assumption of housing policy has been that social renting is a shrinking tenure, and private renting is a stop gap. A number of our roundtable participants thought the first of these is undesirable, and the second inaccurate.

Without a crash in house prices – which no political party would be likely to attempt to engineer – the new normal of lower ownership is almost certainly here to stay. Those on lower incomes, without family wealth to draw upon, are no longer the owners they might once have been. A quarter of UK new-borns’ first home is in the private rented sector today, compared to just one-in-thirteen in 1996. This is what social change looks like, with people bringing up children in homes they can be asked to leave with just a few months’ notice, while paying higher rents, often for lower quality, than social renters enjoy.

Social exclusion 

In Edinburgh and especially Manchester – where social exclusion was the discussion topic – the call for a renaissance in social house building was especially strong. The private sector – the market – was never going to fix the problem on its own. The creation of a new National Housing Corporation was mooted by several roundtable members.

As The Resolution Foundation has pointed out in a recent (March 2019) report: “Just 13 per cent of families today live in social housing, but over 3.8 million more families would be social renters if the same proportion (24 per cent) had access to it as did on average between 1961 and 1981. We built around 13,000 new social rent homes a year in Great Britain over the past five years. If we’d added ten times that amount, we would have only moved the dial from today’s 13 per cent to around 15 per cent.”

To regard social housing as a second class option can no longer be the case. Even Lord Jim O’Neill, an ex-Goldman Sachs partner, and now a Shelter commissioner said: “There needs to be a profound shift to see social housing as a national asset like any other infrastructure. A home is the foundation of individual success in life and public house-building can be the foundation of national success.”

We have heard much that illustrated terrible market failure. One of the most extreme examples of this is Blackpool. When talking about Blackpool and its notorious ‘benefit farms’, Antony Lockley, the Director of Strategy and Assistant Chief Executive at Blackpool Council remarked:

“We’ve experienced a permanent migration of vulnerable people to Blackpool, in particular from the big cities like Birmingham, Burnley, Manchester and Glasgow. In our inner eight wards, over fifty per cent of our housing is poor quality for private renters – a startling statistic. However, there is no relationship between rents paid by public subsidy and the quality of the product on offer. This dynamic and the perverse incentives on offer for landlords to cram vulnerable people into poor quality accommodation has led Blackpool to become the single most deprived place in the UK under any single measure of deprivation.

“Some parts of many towns and cities across the North now require wholesale clearance and re-modelling. We need a localised system of public subsidy that rewards quality and investment rather than incentivises failure. We are doing everything we can within the law in Blackpool to regulate this housing failure. However, the cost of intervention is prohibitive. We can buy property using our cheap borrowing powers over thirty years which means for every £200,000 borrowed at 2% we can create three quality apartments out of a failing house in multiple occupation. But we need the private sector to be incentivised to make similar kinds of investments. In the end, the aim is to have a housing stock that supports individuals and families in putting down roots, stabilising their lives, and contributing to a sustainable community. Right now in inner Blackpool, we have exactly the reverse.”

Simon Nicol of BRE Group, one of the country’s leading experts on the state of our built estate, made the point that the UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe and probably the world and that the private rented sector has the oldest and poorest condition of housing of UK tenures. Interestingly, however, the highest number of vulnerable people in poor housing are owner-occupiers.

At the heart of the matter are two key issues: quantity and quality. The problems with poor quality construction were consistently highlighted. In the last few days, another piece of fallout from the collapse of the building and outsourcing company Carillion has become apparent. At the new Royal Liverpool Hospital, three of the eleven floors of the unfinished third of a billion-pound building are unsafe and require strengthening with 220 cubic metres of new concrete and 165 tonnes of newly fabricated steelwork.

Low quality – and its unwanted fellow traveller poor safety – was brought up repeatedly by roundtable members. At the initial London meeting, Dr Julie Bregulla of BRE said: “We know there’s a performance gap in our buildings – they simply are not performing as designed from many points of view. BRE has the ability to gather vast amounts of data on many aspects of the built environment but what is critical is the correct analysis of that. Above all, meeting the safety expectations is paramount. It’s a must-have when the rules are written and must be abided by. It cannot be about procurement cost.”

“Men in vans who ‘had never even painted before'”

Time and again the skills deficit was highlighted. In Coventry, a design and build manager at a small construction business bemoaned the fact that on his sites contractors dropped off men in vans who “had never even painted before”. In Manchester, one contributor noted that in no other business anywhere are clients expected to pay for the training of the workforce that provides the product or service. The fact that Brexit and potential restriction of freedom of movement for EU nationals is likely to make the constructions skills crisis worse was brought up by a number of people.

And one wonders why, when asked, 60% of the British public say they would rather live in an old house than a brand new one. Who would rather have a second-hand car or aeroplane if a model straight off the production line was available for the same price? The skills deficit is not just on site. One participant, with everyday involvement in planning, noted: “There simply aren’t the qualified and skilled people making planning decisions inside local authorities any more. The cuts have taken their toll. Developers can and will always wriggle out of their responsibilities. You squeeze out a bit more profit by building over promised communal gardens.” As Tony Cain, policy manager at the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers, noted: “It’s a trope to say planners hold things up. But try living a life without planners – be careful what you wish for.”

“The Holy Trinity of local authority, community and developer”

The fact that many developers have skin in the game for such a short time – the block of apartments is finished, sold and they cash in and leave – was repeatedly questioned. David Roberts of Igloo, an urban regeneration specialist, said: “Housing is by a massive margin delivered by those who exit way before occupation…change is needed if we are going to deliver quality places to live, work and relax. Success would be led by the coming together of the Holy Trinity of local authority, community and developer. But regulations and policies purporting to police that space can’t work because they have become too complex for the community to understand, too time-consuming for developers to attempt to unravel and recast and too tough for planning departments to plough through policy documents to try to control development.”

The argument about building on greenfield sites will never end. But brownfield development is often no easier. Those who approach the planning system as novices and who wish to build don’t find it easy. One big player on the Edinburgh business and infrastructure scene moaned: “I’m a novice in housing. We are an employer, neighbour and we have a long-term view. We have a substantial brownfield site we wish to develop. It will provide affordable housing for our own employees and for others. We’ve been through the planning process in multiple cycles of the economy. It should be easier for us to chart a way through but there seems no clear path through the planning process. We can’t seem to get this started. The demand is obvious and we have offered substantial money towards infrastructure so you would have thought the council would have bitten our hand off. But no. Why? There is a lack of political leadership.”

Mission, professionalism and civic duty

It is true that problems abound. But our conclusions are not pessimistic. Across the country, we found scores of professions in the sector who retain a passion and drive for what they do. Many still feel a strong sense of mission, professionalism and civic duty which was encouraging. There may have been a frequent sense of frustration at lack of progress but this wasn’t because the cadre of people we met didn’t know what needs to be done.

Although there is some scepticism about the many promises made by the offsite, modular lobby it’s hard to disagree that it has never really been given the opportunity to prove its worth, increase productivity and the numbers of buildings erected. This was perhaps best epitomised by Joseph Daniels, an ex-cage fighter who spent periods of his teenage years homeless, but as a self-taught entrepreneur has created a business which promises much in the field of off-site housebuilding. Daniel’s poster start-up Project Etopia has Lord Fink as chairman and a putative value of £100 million.

Daniels who is only 29 attended the Coventry roundtable and said,“There is a huge generational gap in this industry. It was largely the young behind the Extinction Rebellion protests and it’s not difficult to see where they are coming from.” (The built environment contributes 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint according to the UK Green Building Council). He continued: “We have gone from a generation that used to send mail to a generation where I can call over Skype anywhere in the world immediately. The problem in construction is that the policymakers, as wise and knowledgeable as they are, probably aren’t as adapted to change. In the 50s and 60s, you had 50 draughtsmen to a building. Now you can create a 20 storey building in Sketch Up in less than three and a half hours. Actually making more smaller spaces more flexibly is happening in places like India and places like Hong Kong and Japan. We need to introduce this here because it’s critical for space when you’re building high rises. Unless we make that change I feel that the industry is still going to stagnate and none of us will be able to innovate effectively”.

A sense of frustration was perhaps most marked in the final session in Swansea in early June. Wales – especially in the South – has been rocked by setbacks. Its steel industry is hanging on by a thread and on the day of our roundtable, the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs at Ford in Bridgend was confirmed.

But Wales has made the unusual move of appointing a commissioner specifically for Future Generations – the “Minister for the As Yet Unborn” as she has become known. This has been received with mirth by some, but an honest acknowledgement that we in the present have a responsibility to think about those who will come after us is surely a sense of maturity and duty.

There was a palpable and powerful sense from the Welsh participants that they knew precisely where the problems lie and they had the knowledge given the political will and funds to put them right.

Conclusion

Quality is key for the future of the UK built environment. It was significant that the Belfast event took place in the multi-award winning, BREEAM Titanic Experience building which was completed in 2012 at a cost of more than £100m, hard by the famous cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard. The building has been integral to the advance and growing success of Belfast since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Gerry Millar, director of Property and Projects at Belfast City Council agreed: “Quality is the only issue that lasts the pace. Where we can ensure it’s foremost, people emphasise that in terms of any construction we do. We have to think about place shaping as a long-term concern. What we do is about the people primarily, rather than buildings. We shape the buildings but the buildings shape the people, as Churchill said. That whole quality argument needs to be pushed harder all the time. And it’s not easy – there are so many asks. We’ve spoken a lot about new, high profile glitzy buildings but most of our buildings are already here, there are people already living in them, and large parts of this city, like Manchester and Birmingham, are grim. We can’t forget about that.”

Gillian Charlesworth, the new CEO of BRE group added: “A big question our industry has to deal with is how to build responsible leadership and influence. It’s nowhere near as influential as it should be outside a few very big players. But the chance is now there to rectify this as our industry is disrupted. Change is happening and we may be on the cusp of a truly significant transformation. Many young people coming into construction are not from the traditional backgrounds as data and the digital world become more and more important. Those of us who are committed to high standards of quality and safety must marshal our influence and put it to good use.”

At the heart of quality is the old adage, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” With a planet to save, quality and durable sustainability should be front and centre. Alongside quality comes a real need for consistency. The UK auto industry learned the Japanese system of kaizen and right first time the hard way back in the 70s and 80s. The world of construction needs to learn it now.

And most importantly – people. People are who buildings are for, whether to live, work or relax in them. Homes not units. People want places. As Amina Lone of the Social Action and Research Foundation said at the Manchester event: “I feel so frustrated when the conversation is about bricks and not people. It’s not just about houses, it’s about communities. We have to talk about how places work, not just how they are constructed or who lives there.”


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