Are prefabs one solution to the housing crisis?

Are prefabs one solution to the housing crisis?

The housing crisis – and the best ways of tackling it – regularly dominate the news agenda. Now ministers are set to turn to prefabs to get Britain’s housebuilding exploits going, helping to construct 100,000 ready-made homes over the course of this parliament.

This will be part of the government’s ongoing manifesto commitment to build a million new homes by 2020 and is also expected to help young first-time buyers onto the housing ladder for the first time.    

Prefabs – or, to give them their full name, prefabricated homes – played a major part in addressing the acute housing shortage Britain was suffering after the Second World War. In order to meet its current ambitious housing targets, the government is turning to the past – and pre-packed homes – for inspiration.

The new wave of prefab homes – now known as “modular homes” instead – would be expected to mimic the post-war surge, backed by Winston Churchill, which helped to house those left homeless by the Blitz.

While the homes often lasted longer than the 10 years they were supposed to, they were also often criticised for their poor quality. The new homes, however, wouldn’t have the same issues with quality because of advances and improvements in technology, the government insists.  

The interest in prefabs – which represents a sudden change in the government’s housing policy – has come about after ministers saw the benefits of 21st Century pre-packed homes and how quickly they can be constructed. In some cases they take just 48 hours.

If the government is looking for speedy ways of solving the housing crisis, prefab homes are clearly one of the best options. There would still be doubts, though, about the quality and long-term sustainability of something built so quickly.

There is anticipated to be a white paper, published next month, which will outline the government’s housing strategy. It will be the first time since Theresa May took over as Prime Minister that we will have more details about what exactly her plans are and how much her ambitions tally with those of her predecessor.

The white paper is expected to include measures encouraging banks to lend to small companies that build homes off-site, before these pre-packed homes are then transferred to their final destination. This would suggest an increased focus on prefab properties.   

It is likely that no specific targets will be set in the white paper, allowing the government greater flexibility, but it is hoped that the new strategy would see more than 100,000 prefab homes built across this parliament.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell has confirmed that the government sees huge potential in a new style of prefab homes. Manufacturers building houses off-site could, the government believes, be one way of tackling the housing crisis head on.

Prefabs vary considerably, from three-bedroom homes built in a day in factories to simple packed homes built on site. A number of housing associations and firms specialise in this type of home.

What the government will need to decide is how to fund this new prefab drive – whether it is investment directly from the state, or investment from private contractors as is the case with something like Build to Rent.

The final details are still not known – and it won’t be until the white paper is released that we will know more – but any attempts to solve the housing crisis are clearly fully welcomed. Prefabs would increase supply in a fast and efficient way, they would give younger buyers another potential way of getting onto the housing ladder and they could be genuinely affordable.

On the other hand, there will be question marks about quality, affordability and how much impact these homes – if they only number 100,000 – will have on the housing crisis. They will put a dent in the million homes needed by 2020, but only a dent.

By next month we will hopefully have more of an idea of how this plan for a new wave of prefabs will play out – it's something that the housing industry will be watching very closely indeed.