Britain’s current government is good at sound bite slogans, it’s how they won the election and tipped the close-run Brexit referendum vote. Boris has recently announced the intention to invest in infrastructure, hospitals, schools, transport and housing. He, Rishi Sunak and their advisors will need to do more to speed up the planning system to meet any timescale within this parliament. Re-energising construction is one sound way to re-vitalise the economy which is already dangerously vulnerable as a consequence of the pandemic. Political actions have long term consequences and the long term is rarely sufficiently grasped by politicians in their desire to be re-elected.
It will take more than a slogan and government money to build Britain back to health. Apparently, Dominic Cummings has the planning system in the cross-hairs of his gun sight. Rightly so, the system is broken, underfunded and underskilled. When David Cameron introduced “localism”, some may say it became more democratic, others will argue, even more dysfunctional and slower than ever. Neighbourhood Plans and the land “allocation” system are both tragically slow and incapable of responding to the needs of both our economy and social needs. The reality is that without radical overhaul of planning, any attempt to force feed construction will fall at the first hurdle. Making planning less democratic will not be easy for a populist government. The apparent extension of “permitted development” for private houses is over complex and still requires under resourced local authorities to confirm that planning consent is deemed permitted. More bureaucratic delay, not less.
There are other issues to confront. The construction industry is overly dependent on the global supply chain for materials. As lock down eases, there are already severe shortages of essential commodities such as timber, cement and plaster. Bricks, stone, sanitary ware, electrical components and countless other materials are imported from countries hit by the virus in Europe and around the world. Shortage of materials is already forcing prices up. This problem has only just begun. Covid-19 has exposed vulnerability of the supply chain “just-in-time” delivery strategy across many sectors. The industry’s dependence on a lengthy sequence of assembling multiple materials on a weather susceptible building site will exaggerate supply chain problems to worrying degree. Delays on site are costly. If construction is to be part of the post-pandemic solution, Britain will need to invest in building factories to manufacture building materials and in doing so, become more self-sufficient. The supply chain has to be re-invented.
The UK has been excellent at R&D in many fields. Instead of selling our expertise abroad, we now need to invest in manufacture. Construction has lagged other industries in research, but that is changing with more off-site fabrication that improves quality and speeds delivery. It can also provide much needed employment. One plan to tackle the issue of the homeless is to provide more modular housing. This may be fine, if manufacturing capability is expanded at home; importing across the oceans from China is not a solution. Much of the design and engineering expertise originated in the UK. When modular construction was being advanced in the UK decades ago, the mortgage providers would not accept the principle. Modular systems designed in Britain headed East for real world manufacture.
If hospitals are to be built, they should be smaller and more local. Closing cottage hospitals and centralising, was not a wise direction for health, convenience or cost. Smaller, local hospitals will be more deliverable and more sustainable. Schools require much needed investment. The “Scape” system developed by Midlands local authorities is a steel frame system that can cut construction time and cost, whilst providing excellent teaching facilities. It’s home grown and relevant.
The UK has rebalanced its production of electricity in recent decades, but investment in renewable energy and the distribution network will be essential as we move to more electric cars and heating. Gas boilers will be redundant in 2025.
Green space in cities has become more fully recognised for connection to nature and overall wellbeing. Valued escape from the confines of urban homes. This is not new. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, a former sanitary officer, designed Central Park in NYC and Boston’s Emerald Necklace of parks. He noted that contemplation of natural scenes is beneficial to “Health and Vigour”. Recent experience has underlined the benefit to mental as well as physical health. London is blessed with many great and small public green spaces. They are a precious resource.
There is likely to be planning debate over density versus more open suburban space. Some will see density as a problem arising from over proximity, others will see suburban sprawl as an issue of climate damage through excessive travel and loss of the precious Green Belt. The walkable town or city would seem an optimum. This is where localism does come in. If more amenities and support structures are available near where we live, then non-essential travel is reduced, sense of community is enhanced and major supply chain dependency reduced. Witness the resuscitation of local corner shops during the lock-down months. Working from home has functioned surprisingly well for many, especially with the use of online meeting capability. We humans need social interaction for stimulus and enjoyment but will the cost, time and risks of over-crowded commuting modify work and employment strategies for the long term? Will co-working facilities lose vogue? Will companies be able to reduce the quantum of expensive central city office floor space? Will young people on inadequate incomes prefer to commute less and spend more time with their young families? Will staggered working hours become the norm? Will tall buildings become less viable with lifts needing to be bigger, or be too close for comfort? Will they need more staircases post Grenfell and C-19, thereby making them less efficient? One change should be more openable windows and improved ventilation systems in place of sealed air tight homes and offices.
Building better dwellings, whether houses or apartments, is essential to resolving the housing crisis and is key to building our way out of recession. Alongside this, stimulating movement in the housing market will be fundamental. The previous tiered increase in Stamp Duty was introduced as a political move to hit the rich in lieu of the unworkable Mansion Tax. In fact, it was part cause of a general stagnation of the whole housing market and Treasury receipts reduced rather than adding to the public purse. The Chancellor’s most recent removal of Stamp Duty up to £500,000 is a step in the right direction. A fluid and active housing market enables more flexible employment and increases public expenditure across many sectors. It is fundamental to the viable development of new homes. A Stamp Duty holiday for elderly downsizers would free-up family homes to the market and has proven healthcare savings. Construction can be a major contributor to the success of building Britain’s economy back to health. It will entail difficult choices, radical reform, long term investment and imagination, as well as infrastructure.
Picture copyright Qingyan Zhu