Housebuilding can kickstart the economy but only if we have all of the right ‘ingredients’ in place says Wayne Gales, chairman of JV North and chief executive of Weaver Vale Housing Trust
As coronavirus restrictions slowly begin to ease, the detailed planning carried out by housebuilders during lockdown will start to be implemented.
While we remain in the midst of an unwanted and unprecedented period of uncertainty, it has provided an opportunity to pause, recover, re-evaluate and reignite housebuilding.
Central to this is addressing how we can speed-up the whole process.
There are two distinct areas that will make a significant dent in housing waiting lists: partnership working and the sector being given the right ingredients.
The two go hand in glove and are crucial to making a sustainable, long-term impact.
At JV North – a growing consortium of housing association and local authority partners that creates economies of scale when bidding for government homebuilding grant and procuring works – we have long-reaped the benefits of joining forces with other stakeholders to achieve more together.
This is going to be more important than ever and while government has provided good support in the initial phase of lockdown, the severity of the housing shortage means more is needed.
Rising to the challenge in economic downturns
History shows the sector always rises to the challenge in economic downturns and we will do so again in the coming months and years as the recovery begins in earnest.
It has been well reported that a social and economic shock of this magnitude was last seen in this country in the Second World War.
By looking back, we can often see further forward and housing played such an important role post-1945 to kickstart the economy.
It can do the same again but only if we have all the right ‘ingredients’ and are prepared to really challenge ourselves, be more collaborative and innovative than ever (‘key ingredients’), rather than continuing to just talk about it!
Approximately three months since lockdown and the Budget, there is now growing urgency to know the finer detail of the new £12bn, five-year Affordable Homes Programme (a key ingredient), along with the multi-year settlement, what is deemed affordable (more social rent for most people?), tenure types and other obligations we must meet.
We also need to know whether the existing grant regime linked to the 2016/21 SOAHP will be extended as completion dates have inevitably slipped and the programme ends next March.
Greater flexibility around tenure swaps would be welcomed by some too.
These answers are needed now and will give all stakeholders much-needed confidence and certainty.
Effective construction and development partnerships
Through effective construction and development partnerships we can also help restructure an aptly-skilled workforce and supply chain (‘key ingredients’).
Of course, understanding the downturn’s impact on the housing market is vital along with analysing how different tenures will be affected. Flexibility across all stakeholders will be vital and must be built into new ways of working.
With large-scale job losses expected when furlough winds down, many people will struggle to own a home and rent affordability will become an increasing challenge for some.
We should prepare now by looking at the flexibility and diversity of our offer and importantly, provide choice to meet people’s needs.
Operationally, it will take time for building sites to reach full capacity again.
Additional cost implications are likely as contractors implement new ways of working in line with revised government guidelines.
We need to appreciate this, work together to share risk, keep people safe and do our bit to support the financial sustainability of our partners and their supply chains.
After all, they are also a ‘key ingredient’ something which is occasionally lost on some clients.
How we collectively manage these negotiations will be crucial; give-and-take will be needed from all.
As well as the challenges presented, there will be opportunities to take on distressed, challenging projects that are part complete, possibly available through housebuilders or by engaging with private developers looking to sell discounted properties to support liquidity challenges.
Increasing much-needed affordable homes
This could offer a quick and cost-effective route to increasing much-needed affordable homes in some parts of the country.
This is also a perfect time to create the homebuilding marketplace we want rather than enduring age-old frustrations.
Modular housing (key ingredient) is a prime example – the sector knows the benefits and obstacles.
We have the required pipeline to build factory homes en masse and with some financial help from government, together we can make huge inroads into addressing the housing crisis through this approach.
We welcome Homes England’s recent announcement to commission research into MMC as it is something JV North also started in mid-2019 so it will be interesting to compare findings and work together on this.
The pandemic has acutely reminded us of the importance of ‘home’ so when analysing how we can change for the better, serious consideration needs to be given to internal and external space standards and our general approach to quality of place.
It is pleasing to see the recognition given to key workers over recent months, including many working within housing, given the sterling work they carry out helping others.
With agile working expected to be embraced more by us all in the future, thought needs to be given to how we accommodate and support this via the home.
Some new homes fortunate to have a space to create a workstation are often merely an add on and not well thought through.
So greater attention will be needed in terms of how we allocate internal space and specify specialist building services such as power, data, orientation and lighting.
Those who embrace such ideas will be those with an eye to the future and looking to steal a competitive sales advantage in the shared ownership or outright sales markets.
JV North members have been working together
JV North members have been working together to navigate the risks and capitalise on the opportunities created by the coronavirus.
When lockdown was announced, twice weekly video conferences were held with JV North’s Development Group to provide extra support and guidance with weekly sessions continuing to take place.
Subjects discussed include health and safety, homebuilding construction contracts, tenures, risk management systems, identifying opportunities and sharing intelligence and data.
We expect this way of working to carrying on post-lockdown.
The consortium’s work with another key partner, Homes England, to finalise our recovery plan is also going to be crucial.
For significant change to happen, everyone involved will need to think differently and give-and-take a little for the common good.