Thank You Mrs May

The budget and the recently published industrial strategy both try to give the construction industry a hearty shove in the direction of innovation and improvement - will it work?

It’s easy to be sceptical about government intervention in the construction sector. There is a noble tradition of task forces, reports and white papers all highlighting the problems associated with a deeply conservative, fractured and adversarial industry structure.

Occasionally the government uses its financial muscle to make a radical intervention that does actually achieve some change – the introduction of BIM, it could be argued, is one example.  Is offsite going to be another?

For years many Very Important People have made largely pointless comparisons with other industries to suggest how construction can be streamlined, improved, brought up to date.  The headline stories tend to focus on housebuilding and polarise opinion by introducing the dreaded sobriquet “prefab” which generally puts paid to any enthusiasm for a while.

But several sections in the recent Budget and Industrial Strategy underline the government’s determination to reform building methods. 

The budget suggests a “presumption in favour of offsite construction by 2019” while the industrial strategy (hurrah for a commitment to investing in industrial research) highlights construction as one of four sector deals supporting a “transformative programme….. to develop and commercialise digital and offsite manufacturing techniques.”

Offsite has been championed by successive governments for decades and the housebuilding industry has largely turned a deaf ear. Is it different this time?

Commercial organisations are pretty good at working out what they need to do in order to succeed and housebuilders have simply not needed to embrace new techniques while the current model suits their business practice. 

Why would a housebuilder invest in technical innovation, training or its own manufacturing facilities when it can pick up and lay off its workforce on a daily basis, keeping cost to a minimum and retaining the flexibility needed to cope with one of the most volatile market sectors known to man?

Government can rage as much as it likes about offsite, but while it relies on commercial enterprise to deliver its new houses and while traditional methods continue to deliver the numbers for those enterprises, nothing much will budge.

However, if there was ever a right moment in which to introduce change into this most conservative industry, that moment is probably now - for two reasons:

1.  All political parties are committed to building more houses over the longer term. If government support – however it is delivered – provides a more stable and predictable market, then investing in new technology and training becomes a viable option.

2.  A lack of people. Years of underinvestment have turned construction into a deeply unattractive industry. In consequence, we have a rapidly aging workforce.  The potentially speedy exodus of migrant workers on whom we rely to make up the shortfall is likely to exacerbate an already significant problem.  

The twin drivers of opportunity and need provide a powerful combination.

I absolutely do not believe that this will lead to a wholesale move to prefabricated modular construction methods, but there is certainly more appetite for experimentation and a greater enthusiasm to explore innovation. 

In this environment, the promise of investment through the industrial strategy fund and strong support for new training initiatives are going to be very welcome indeed– so thank you Mrs May.

Now all we need to do is agree what is meant by the term offsite……….