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.

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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.