For a quick solution to London’s housing problems, look to pre-fab

Modular housing: better than it used to be. Image: Morley von Sternberg.

The Grenfell Tower disaster has shone light into many dark corners – one of which has been the sheer difficulty of meeting demand for affordable housing, particularly socially-rented housing, in central London. 

Kensington & Chelsea, with the highest average land values in London, has a challenge that is particularly intense, but not exceptional: the borough has around 7,000 socially-rented units, but more than 1,800 homeless households are housed in temporary accommodation, 1,360 of these outside the borough – the highest proportion in London.

Centre for London has argued for more collaboration between boroughs to build more affordable housing where there is most space. But this is a long-term solution; it’s no good talking to traumatised and grieving survivors about lead times of two to three years plus, about short-term tenancies, about outplacements. They want to be re-housed locally and securely, in socially-rented flats. They have lost family, friends, possessions; they need at the very least to retain their local connections, their sense of community.

If the traditional housing market can’t meet these needs, then perhaps this disaster offers the opportunity to try something new.  As the UK’s housing crisis deepens, and the supply of new homes fails to respond to demand, architects, engineers and investors have been working together on a new generation of manufactured homes. Rather than using the labour-intensive technologies of bricks and mortar that have been in place for centuries, these new homes are built off-site using the precision manufacturing techniques that are commonplace in office development, then assembled on site in a matter of months if not weeks.

Modular housing: better than it used to be. Image: Morley von Sternberg.

With a few exceptions, however, manufactured homes are more talked about than built.  As disruptive technologies meet a highly conservative industry, there are problems with how systems work together, with the warranties that can be given, with insurance. 

Centre for London is planning a project looking at how these can be unlocked. But perhaps the biggest problem is one of perception. Previous generations of ‘pre-fab’ and ‘system-built’ homes do not have a great reputation (though many ‘temporary prefabs’ built in the 1940s are still in place today).

These techniques mean that new homes could be built in a few months, on sites near North Kensington. Though there are few large sites in Kensington & Chelsea itself, there are several opportunity areas nearby: Old Oak Common, White City and Earls Court all border the borough.  If suitable plots of land could be identified and prepared within these area, and planning permission fast-tracked, new villages could be built to house Grenfell survivors, and could remain in place for three to five years, after which time it could remain in place, or be dismantled and moved to enable long-term plans to be realised.

Though procurement timetables would – as ever – be a challenge, the mayor and other agencies could appoint a selection of different suppliers to build new homes. In this way, he could respond to the needs of a desperate community, but also showcase a way forward for tackling London’s housing crisis.

Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. He tweets as @MinorPlaces.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.

Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.