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Offsite manufacturing key to housing sector post Covid-19

Thu 16 April 2020, 5:30 pm

Offsite manufacturing can play a significant role in the recovery of the housing sector with the support of local and central government, the latest Voice of Authority webinar has heard.

The construction industry has been partially shut down by efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, with only selected sites staying open if they can meet strict controls on social distancing and isolation.

Pat Hayes, managing director at Be First, Barking and Dagenham Council’s regeneration arm, told viewers on Thursday (April 16) he believes the recovery phase of the crisis offers a “potentially huge opportunity” for the construction industry, as communities look to revive their economies and homebuilding projects get back on track.

He said the offsite manufacturing sector could thrive with “capacity….and an ability to deliver at pace and at quality” to meet demand once the virus has subsided.

“If I was someone with a huge amount of capital, this is the time now to buy an offsite manufacturing company and put a lot of money behind it”, he said.

"Generate as much non-bespoke product as possible, and generate an inventory.”

Tina Barnard, chief executive of Watford Community Housing, said the lockdown is a “good time” for planning applications to be submitted and processed, as the sector tries to keep progressing. “Development is like a tanker”, she said. “If you stop it, it’s really hard to start it again.”

She said offsite manufacturing is a “cottage industry”, but signalled that a collaborative approach between the private and public sector could help both to thrive in the future.

“It’s very much about looking at things differently”, she said, adding that the lockdown has forced everyone to reassess their organisation’s ability to change and adapt.
“We now see we can change very quickly. This has to be that agenda for change”, she said.

Rory Bergin, partner at HTA Design that sponsored this week’s webinar, agreed that collaboration can herald success for the offsite manufacturing industry.

He told the session he believes larger offsite factories would be able to produce more, and this would give firms a greater chance of meeting the expectations of clients.

Bergin said he believes that offsite production can play a major role in recovery “if organisations work together to organise pipelines, so you are not flooding factories with orders, give them a long bench of work, and factories can scale up pretty quickly”, he said. “We could come out of this really well if we organise ourselves.”

Mark Baigent, interim director of housing, regeneration, and planning at Haringey Council, sounded a note of caution saying the impact of Covid-19 on development “is going to be felt for a very long period of time”.

“A lot of companies that were on the edge, they are going to go under sadly. A lot of businesses are going to need a lot of support to bring them through”, he said, adding that everyone should be trying to “hit the ground” running once restrictions are lifted.

Hayes said public funding would be crucial in the recovery phase, and called on regional bodies like the Greater London Authority to lobby for money to put into modern methods of construction (MMC) schemes. 

Barnard agreed a high level of cooperation between local authorities and housing associations, alongside funding, would help to fuel a successful recovery.

Next week’s The Voice of Authority webinar, run by 3Fox, will look at the role of councils in the town centre of 2021. To sign up, head to www.thevoiceofauthority.co.uk/webinar 

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