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.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.