UK planning inflexibility sees ‘modular revolution’ deferred

21 August 2019 3 min. read
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Also known as modular working, modern methods of construction offer the opportunity to rethink how the building sector conceptualises, design and creates much-needed housing. Despite the potential of modular methods, however, a new report has found only 10% of homes being built in the UK are deploying modular techniques. 

According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, modern methods of construction (MMC) could transform the construction market, offering possible savings of up to 20% while significantly reducing the construction time by up to 50%. The process would involve part of the building process being shifted to factories, offering the ability to create precision parts that offer a range of quality-related benefits to overall project outcomes – including energy efficiency gains and better site safety.

Despite its promising potential, however, modular construction remains largely disused by the British construction sector. MMC tactics are only used on around 10% of newly built homes, despite the UK’s high demand for residential properties in the coming years. Most analysis had previously centred on financial and technical barriers making MMC a niche market; however, a new study from engineering consultancy Arup argues that the current housing planning system in the UK is actually to blame. 

On-site construction time

Vicky Evans, Arup’s UKMEA residential business leader, said, “There’s evidence which shows the current planning system cannot deliver MMC at scale, nor does it understand the opportunities it brings. Developers, local authorities and Homes England must now work together to change attitudes to introduce a streamlined planning process that supports innovative house-building.” 

Arup’s study suggested that even if only a third of projects deployed MMC in the next 10 years, some 265,000 extra homes could be built before 2030. It would not even be a struggle to do this, because almost 40% of homes currently under construction are built as rental properties – something which MMC is ideally suited for. In order to help successfully realise the potential of modular building, Arup identified a number of opportunities, actions and benefits that would help local planning authorities and other users of the planning system initiate an “MMC revolution.”

Despite the many benefits of MMC, planning delays and planning risk are consistently cited as some of the biggest challenges faced by developers. According to Arup, smoothing the development management process is therefore key to deploying MMC fully. The paper called upon local planning authorities to consider adopting a “pattern book” system, allowing architects, builders and homebuyers to share designs in a way which was first popularised during the rapid urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution.

The advantages of a new MMC planning model will be eroded if planning officers and councillors seek to “tweak” designs, it warns, and design decision need to be locked in early on and carried through. Instead, Arup suggests that local authorities and Homes England should forge partnerships to implement MMC at scale. Local Authorities should look for opportunities to lead pilot MMC projects on their sites and support MMC at the highest level, while Homes England could share knowledge and build an alliance across the MMC sector to accelerate uptake. 

The Arup report pointed to a number of examples of how such partnerships could work. In 2018, Wakefield District Council introduced a Residential Design Guide SPD setting out the different types of MMC and encouraging applicants to “take advantage of the latest technologies to improve building quality”. Meanwhile, Central Bedfordshire Council’s Local Plan 2035 sets out an aim of having MMC account for 20% of all new development of the period it covers, and this will see developers specifically asked to demonstrate how they have considered the use of MMC in future projects.