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.

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust