MMC must be used as a policy lever in 2022.

As 2022 gets off to a flying start, has there ever been a greater case for making modular mainstream?

A cost-of-living crisis is threatening to plunge millions of households into fuel poverty, house building output is flatlining, much-needed reforms to the UK’s outdated planning system are being watered-down, and the construction sector is still grappling with a worsening shortage of skilled labour.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, because there is a solution – offsite manufacturing (OSM).

Structural and societal issues mean that innovative methods of house building can no longer be overlooked or considered a ‘pipedream’. Homes England, the Government’s national housing agency, has been a long-standing champion of OSM, recently going one step further in stipulating that housing associations looking to sign deals under the new £12 billion Affordable Housing Programme will have to commit to using some form of modern methods to build out at least a quarter of their pipelines.

As such, the private sector has begun to respond to public sector support, with stakeholders from across the development spectrum wanting a slice of the pie – you only have to look at our recent £60 million fundraise as evidence of this happening in real time.

So what solutions can OSM afford house building and the UK population?

Fast-rising inflation, which is already at 5.1 percent and forecast to hit 6 percent this spring, means pay packets were already shrinking in real terms last year. Meanwhile, spiralling energy bills mean that once the price cap is lifted in April, two million more homes could slip into fuel poverty, bringing the total to four million.

Therefore, there has never been a greater time to ramp up the delivery of energy-efficient homes that both significantly reduce consumer bills and lower domestic emissions. Launched last year, we’re beginning the roll out of our ilke ZERO offering, the UK’s first mainstream zero-carbon home that has the ability to promise consumers an energy bill of zero. This is thanks to high levels of airtightness, improved building fabrics, and the use of low-carbon technologies – such as air source heat pumps and solar panels.

Pandemic-induced disruptions and slowing productivity levels also mean that house building continues the trend of missing the Government’s 300,000-new-homes-a-year target by some margin. At ilke Homes, up to eight homes will soon roll off our production lines each day, and within the next five years, we’re aiming to have delivered up to 10,000 factory-built homes for a mix of tenures.

One of the many reasons why house building output remains below par is thanks to the UK’s planning system, which has remained largely unchanged since the wake of the Second World War.

In 2020, the then Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick released the Planning for the Future white paper. The plan was to overhaul planning laws by zoning land for either growth, renewal, or protection. But the reforms are now being watered down. In addition, a recent report from the House of Lords’ Built Environment Committee revealed that spending on planning has fallen by 14.6 percent since 2010, so further delays are expected.

With this in mind, it’s fair to say there is a huge requirement to speed up build out programmes once planning has been approved. Thanks to the harnessing of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, we can deliver homes to market twice as fast as traditional methods.

But if we’re going to tackle the aforementioned problems, we will need a workforce to do so. According to the Construction Industry Training Board, the sector will need over 216,000 new workers by 2025 to meet growing demand. Construction is synonymous with working on cold, damp sites, but OSM means our employees work in a dry, factory-controlled environment. We need to change the perception of house building, and unless modular becomes more mainstream, we simply won’t attract the talent needed to keep up with the high demand.

So it’s clear: OSM is not a method to simply make house building a more productive industry. It’s a lever that can be pulled to join up energy, housing, and employment policy. All in all, it’s a win-win for the Government’s levelling up agenda.