How modular homes could help alleviate the housing crisis in Wales
Jack Sargeant, MS Alyn and Deeside
It is widely accepted that we face a housing crisis. However, the term is used so often that we have become numb to it and risk losing the real stories behind the crisis.
Families and individuals are being made homeless, forced to constantly move, living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation, and driven into poverty by unaffordable housing costs.
The chaos this causes in peoples’ lives and the long-term trauma they are left with is horrendous. Even in the short term, poor housing and homelessness has physical and mental health consequences, puts significant strain on our NHS and drives economic inactivity.
It also costs the state a fortune through the cost of the Local Housing allowance, frustratingly many of the properties being paid for include former social housing, now in the hands of private landlords.
This must change. Investment in social housing is essential. The positives are obvious – borrowing to build social housing is safe because it comes with a guaranteed and consistent returns, giving people affordable permanent homes and driving the economy through construction.
In Wales we have seen progress, with local authorities building council houses for the first time in a generation, but we know that we have to keep building and on a bigger scale.
A considerable national mission is required to make this a reality and politicians who can build alliances around this mission. Everyone needs to be on board; councils, housing associations and dare I say it even our political opponents need to work together.
This will be a real test of leadership but is completely achievable.
As well as costs, the other barriers to social house building are labour shortages and the planning process. One of the ways we can overcome this is the use of modular housing which requires less labour, is quicker to build and is less disruptive to existing communities so could address planning objections.
It could also allow the use of confined brown field sites where we would struggle with protracted traditional construction methods.
I am not for a second suggesting we abandon traditional house building, but a mixed approach including modular is the right way forward.
My office recently spoke to a local authority cabinet member about their use of modular construction, and they explained the main barrier was securing factory time as demand is high and options for producers limited.
This is where I want Wales to take a collaborative and bold approach.
The combined purchasing power of Welsh Councils and Housing Associations should be able to crack this nut. The WLGA and Welsh Government are well placed to bring construction to Wales.
Crucially, we should not just build but design the next generation of carbon neutral heating systems, insulation, and the high-tech interiors.
We have been left behind on this before, building or in many cases refurbing someone else’s technology.
Communities like mine in Alyn and Deeside already have many of the skills required and our partners in further education have a track record of supporting manufacturing training.
I once visited Corus living solutions based on the site of Shotton steelworks as part of my engineering course in Highschool. Such a location would be ideal for a Wales wide modular logistics hub.
I have written previously for the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s E&T magazine about how this fits in with Vaughan Gethings vision of using all the levers at our disposal to drive the Welsh economy.
I have more to say on housing and the need to increase the knowledge and capacity in our councils to meet the challenges of a huge social housing building programme.
There is much to cover regarding sourcing investment and the opportunities provided by disinvestment of public sector pensions from fossil fuels and instead investing in the guaranteed return of social housing. We also need to have a brave conversation about planning reform.
These things are for another day, and I will be revisiting them but for now I say, if we are to lead and excel in modular housing, we need to be bold enough to back real solutions to the pressing problems we face.
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