London needs technological innovation to solve its housing crisis

London housing from the air. Image: Getty.

It is generally agreed that the UK’s housebuilding sector has been very slow to innovate. We still build homes using labour-intensive technologies of bricks and mortar, while innovation in other sectors has been characterised by rapid and radical change.

But with demand for new housing high, and supply low, traditional housebuilders have had little reason to do things differently while barriers to entry remain high. You can’t come up with a clever app to revolutionise housebuilding or do away with land, construction and planning challenges.

Innovation is needed across the housing cycle, but innovations in housing construction and manufacturing could create a real step-change in the speed, quality and quantity of houses being built in the capital.

As the UK’s housing crisis deepens and as 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. These are built offsite using precision manufacturing techniques and are assembled onsite in a matter of months, if not weeks.


This innovation has been driven by constraints such as the shortage, and cost, of traditional contractors. Pocket, a developer specialising in micro-homes, embraced modular construction a few years ago to bring down costs; in May it completed Europe’s tallest residential modular tower in Wandsworth. Each flat was built and fitted offsite, then craned into place at the rate of one storey per day. Earlier this year, across the Channel in Nantes, the Yhnova house was 3D-printed in a matter of days – a world first.

Pre-fab is not new idea. Crystal Palace, the world’s first large-scale prefabricated building was built in 1851 from cast iron and glass. But the trouble is that pre-fab has gone out of fashion. Too often it conjures visions of concrete towers, containers or US-style mobile homes.

But there are examples from around the world which challenge this stereotype. And attitudes towards prefab homes are different in other countries: in Sweden, 84 per cent of detached homes are prefabricated.

At the moment, only seven per cent of all construction output in the UK is done offsite. The Mayor’s Innovation Fund has recognised this by offering support for community-led housing, for the development of offsite and precision manufacturing of homes, and for new ideas to house homeless people – but there is a long way to go to promote innovation across the industry and scale it up.

Right now, prefab needs a makeover. We need to challenge misconceptions, celebrate good design and show case new ideas. A London Housing Expo – an idea put forward by design studio HTA – could showcase the experiments bubbling up in London and abroad, as well as drive their application in the city. Like the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, these inventions could bring a sense of excitement, garner public interest, and create more innovation in the process.

Victoria Pinoncely is research manager at the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.