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We need to mobilise a full-spectrum strategy if we’re to tackle Britain’s housing crisis

We need a little wartime thinking if we’re going to solve the housing crisis, writes Prof Dr Michael Benfield – it’s time to mobilise on all fronts


For 30 years or more Britain’s housing crisis has been getting progressively worse.

The sale of council houses, failure to replace these, mortgage gluts and famines, unbalanced planning system, negative equity disasters, acute shortage of land for development, ever higher regulatory demands on building, and millions of immigrants needing homes are all partial reasons for this.

Governments and politicians of all colours are to blame for letting the crisis get out of hand.

The last time we had a crisis like this was at the end of World War II. Then many newly-weds were forced to live with parents, or go into single bedsitters, sharing toilets and bathrooms with the home-owners. Then the shortage was caused by bomb damage and thousands of service men and women returning to reunite their families, causing government to build thousands of ‘pre-fab’ homes and allow – even encourage –land owners to create residential caravan parks for families, many of which are, albeit in different form, still with us today.

Today the crisis is different. Today many local authorities are forced to pay thousands of pounds a month for ‘emergency’ housing. Today, countless numbers of young people are unable to find an affordable home to buy or rent, our elderly can be forced out of their lifetime home, and ‘mum and dad’ can’t downsize into somewhere close to their family. Today, ‘retirement’ living is often associated with hospital bed blocking, and care homes can no longer afford to operate.

Today we have a housing crisis which is certainly ‘out of hand’.


Land for development

This is all despite the fact that, throughout the country, pockets of land, large and small, lie vacant, derelict for want of ‘planning’; idle awaiting some indecisive politician or rule-bound bureaucrat to approve some more comprehensive re-development.

The land available is swollen by burdensome back gardens, by abandoned garage courts, by site assembly projects, by serviced road frontages that lie outside conceptual edge of town or village envelopes.

Now typical delays of three to five years in securing ‘planning permission’, subsequently exacerbated by the need for environmental, bat, newt and other surveys, are crippling and dis-incentivising the housebuilding industry’s ability to deliver what they are in business to do.

And all the time the inhabitants of our islands are crying out for more and better housing.

The situation is exacerbated in our major cities, where garden sheds are being let for multiple occupation and pocket-sized toilet blocks are sold for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds for redevelopment or conversion into small, arguably substandard homes.

In these locations the lack of ‘key worker’ housing is threatening the continued operations of many public services. And everywhere the pressure on available developable sites is leading to higher and higher land prices and smaller and smaller, increasingly expensive, homes as those with the wherewithal and capability try to find ways of providing something – almost anything – that people will pay them a profit to live in.

Individually most, if not all, of the foregoing is recognised by ‘the powers that be’. But collectively the facts of the crisis remain effectively ignored by them collectively.

Arguments between politicians, electoral pledges and Government actions to address the crisis are, in the main, future orientated. They do nothing to provide immediate homes on a massive scale for those clamouring to be housed, or local authorities with a costly duty to provide ‘emergency’ housing, or immigrants herded together in cellars, outhouses and other degrading ghettos.

This is not to say that we should throw out the baby with the Town & Country Planning legislation bathwater. Although in many respect now moribund and, arguably, ‘not fit for purpose’, it has and does provide many worthwhile protections for our people and country.

However, in order to press the huge amount of vacant, unused property up and down the country into the immediate residential use, does mean that it’s hugely restrictive application in practice must be relieved, if not revoked.


Wartime thinking

Linking the need for slum replacement with post-war housing, the crisis then was anticipated as early as 1942 by the cross party Burt Committee. In 1943 it sent British engineers to the United States to investigate how America—one of the main wartime advocates of prefabricated construction—intended to address its needs for post-war housing.

The committee subsequently favoured prefabricated housing as a solution to the problems and in a radio broadcast in March 1944, as the War in Europe was ending, Churchill announced a Temporary Housing Programme, known officially as the Emergency Factory Made or EFM housing programme. The vision was for a Ministry of Works (MoW) emergency project to build 500,000 ‘new-technology’ prefabricated temporary houses directly at the end of the war:

“The emergency programme is to be treated as a military evolution handled by the government with private industry harnessed in its service. As much thought will go into the prefabricated housing programme as went into the invasion of Africa.”

This vision and promise passed into law as the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act 1944, which planned to build 300,000 prefab houses in Britain over the next four years, with a structural lifetime of between 10 and 15 years. In fact just over 150,000 were built.

Now, as in 1945, Government must take action to remove the blockages to the provision of at least half decent places for people to live. Now, as then, we need to find ways of pressing vacant land into residential use. Now, as then, we need to (re)-consider the place that pre-fabricated housing and mobile homes could have in resolving the crisis.

However, to do so demands that Britain’s town and country planning system be re-visited and possibly suspended in certain circumstances, even – as then – allowing development on the side of municipal parks, in green belts and indeed anywhere else that a new home can be located, even if only temporarily.


Overcoming obstructions

The 1944 Act envisaged problems in obtaining access to sites quickly and hence slowing the programme. To overcome this it gave councils the authority to claim sites where two or more prefabs could be constructed. Councils were also given power over the site once identified, even before purchase was completed.

The programme delivered quick housing, with properties going up at the rate in some authorities at the rate of 1.75 units per site per day. The 100,000th house completed in January 1947 in Clapham, South London.


Factory built homes

In 1945 Government turned to factories then vacated by aircraft, munitions and military equipment manufacturers to produce ‘prefabricated homes’ to help address the massive housing shortage.

With space standards set at 635 sq. ft. (59m2) for family units and a maximum width of 7’6” (2.3m) to allow road transport, competitions were established from which 24 main types went into production. Sweden also sent 5,000 homes to the UK, making a gift of 100 of these.

Additionally, the programme envisaged 30,000 homes being manufactured in the USA and shipped to Britain. These were timber-framed structures with a floor space of 600 square feet (56 m2), comprising two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, and a kitchen, designed with a life expectancy of 10 years. However, with objections from the American public about use of resources, disfavour of UK recipients over design aspects, and the first shipments arriving damaged, only 8,462 were supplied.

In 1944 the Ministry of Works held a public exhibition of five types of prefab at the Tate Gallery in London.

  • Two timber-framed designs, the Tarran and the Uni-Seco
  • One steel-framed with asbestos panels, the Arcon
  • One aluminium prefab, made from surplus aircraft materials, the AIROH

Although the American-sourced units were cheaper, the combined costs of manufacture and construction of British prefabs turned out to be more costly than traditionally built brick houses. The population allocated prefabs were also concerned that prefabs were a permanent over a temporary solution.

While present day luminaries like Sir Michael Caine, Dame Barbara Windsor, and Lord Neil Kinnock grew up in them, in the event only 156,622 temporary housing programme prefabs were built. Concern over them becoming permanent proved justified, with many still in occupation after 40 and 50 years and even a few still in use after 70 years – way exceeding the official requirement of 60 years for permanent housing. .


Prefabrication today

Unlike immediate post war Britain, today we do not have vast amounts of unused factory space waiting to be filled with alternative manufacturing uses. Most of our industrial space is fully occupied.

Unlike 1945, the demand for housing is not limited by the finite number of service returnees and family reformations. Instead, year on year it is being swelled by a seemingly endless and growing number of immigrants.

Unlike then we don’t have effective freedom to appropriate more or less any available land to the provision of new homes. Instead we are trammelled by rules and regulations that impose seemingly countless obstacles and restrictions on the provision of even the most basic shelter. Unlike the space standards sought by the 1944 Act, today we are becoming accustomed to innovative designs, housing people in smaller and smaller spaces.

However, encouraged by Scandinavian and North American practices, today Britain has a burgeoning off-site timber frame housing sector. This has developed its own wealth of knowledge and practices to meet specific UK requirements, supplemented by a growing number of other Modern Methods of Construction enabling greater speed and efficiency of production.

Adapting to the opportunities afforded by regulations applying to mobile homes, Britain has also developed highly sophisticated ‘Park Home’ solutions for providing non-permanent homes on former caravan and camp sites. It now has a new breed of Park Home projects, many of which have created enviable small garden communities often occupied by older residents.


Failure of the Prescott challenge

In 2005 the then deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott challenged the house building industry to build ‘affordable homes’ for £60,000 or less. Several house builders met this head on, proving that the industry could deliver affordable homes, albeit at higher densities and with smaller units.

However, he also wondered why new houses could not be produced in factories, like motor cars, in their thousands. The answer then is the same as now. It comes in at least three significant parts:

  1. The finance required for cars perhaps averages around 10% of that needed for housing, is relatively short term – three to five years – with the cars regarded as a depreciating assets which move from location to location over time. Conversely, new homes require 10 times the amount of money, are considered as fixed assets tied to a permanent location, and seen as appreciating in value over time. In consequence the ‘security’ required for housing needs borrowers to demonstrate stable, or appreciating, long term incomes, and non-wasting material components.
  2. The market for housing is huge, needing an average production of circa 250,000 houses a year for at least the next 10 years, of which maybe 150,000 will be ‘conventional’ wet build construction. Unlike cars which can be produced and parked in large open storage grounds waiting for delivery, houses are very large, are difficult, if not impossible to store and, for efficiency and cost purposes, need to be delivered direct to the site where they will be built and remain for 60 to 120 years, or more.
  3. The investment in industrial plant, equipment, premises, product design and prototype testing required for any mass manufacturing operation, is huge. It is something that only the foolhardy would undertake without the near certainty that a market existed for their products which would enable such investment to be amortised over, say, a minimum 10 years. Likewise, those considering the financing of these facilities will wish to assure themselves that the borrowers will not face major market downturns or collapses, as has happened at least three times over the last 25 years – on average rather less than the 10 year amortisation period suggested above.

Faced with such conundrums, successive governments have been unable to satisfactorily secure the delivery of the much needed increasing number of new homes. True, they have flirted with the institutional house-building industry to help give them some confidence that people will be able to buy what they produce, and they have tinkered with planning issues to try and ease the desperate shortage of land coming through for residential development.

However, they have done little or nothing to enable the immediate and desperate plight of local councils or the need of key-workers, young and retired people, those in need of transitional housing, or the homeless.


Looking backward to go forward

In December 2015 the UK Government put out a consultation paper on proposed changes to national planning policy. However, this is primarily concerned with the provision of permanent housing, not the emergency homes so urgently required. Yet a very obvious remedy is in their hands.

By revisiting the way in which post war government addressed the issues they could quickly release the flood gates to the provision of tens of thousands of small, short term, temporary, pre-fabricated homes. Even so, to encourage existing or new entrants to establish the industrial facilities required, they will also need to find some mechanisms to ensure that the medium to long term (10 to 20 year) market will be maintained, together with the funding needed by buyers or landlords to effectively guarantee this.

Temporary housing does not need to be made from converted shipping containers, or look like construction site offices. Nor does it need to perform significantly worse than that required by today’s regulations for permanent housing.

Considered in the short term – say three to five years, like motor cars – there should be no need for them to be subject to any planning laws or siting restrictions. Properly considered they can be reasonably ‘mobile’, capable of being relocated in different locations and, if included in a development conforming to planning requirements, improved, extended in length, width or upward, and converted to permanent housing if this were found to be desirable at some future date.


Emergency housing assistance

Across Britain, the availability of emergency housing is a major cause for concern, especially in major cities. In the absence of suitable housing stock within the local authority, many councils are forced to rent from private landlords or, most usually, to place people with nowhere to live in expensive bed and breakfast accommodation.

The costs for this can run into thousands of pounds for just a few weeks. Where people are suffering a homeless emergency, especially if children are involved, this form of accommodation is not only hugely expensive, it is also socially undesirable.


Legally homeless

By law, people who are legally homeless must be helped by their council (local authority). This could be by them giving advice, or arranging accommodation for the homeless, often in small rooms in hotels and guest houses.



Permanent UK residents are usually eligible for assistance, immigrants may not be. Priority need applies if:

  • The person or someone they live with is pregnant
  • ‘Dependent children’ live with them (under 16s or under 19s if they’re studying full-time)
  • They are ‘vulnerable‘, e.g. as a result of old age or disability
  • They are homeless after a flood, fire or other disaster

Help with costs may be available via Housing Benefit.


Mass emergency housing

The need for temporary emergency housing is exacerbated by the need for emergency housing for disabled and similar groups. In some locations emergency housing programmes are being established, possibly with, or under the guise of, an emergency housing consortium to provide temporary homes.


Temporary homes

Temporary housing and temporary shelter comes in many forms, many of them not aesthetically or structurally desirable, as for instance with shipping containers used for temporary housing.

At first sight these might be considered to provide cheap temporary housing, but this is seldom the case. True, these might provide very short term temporary homes for rent, and it is possible to improve their appearance and performance, but often the cost is uneconomic. It is also unlikely that they will provide acceptable security for temporary home loans.

While there is a crying need for short term temporary housing, especially for the homeless, this is for the period of time that the tenant/s occupy them, rather than the longevity of the housing units themselves.

In this respect the need is for long term temporary housing, possibly delivered as temporary corporate homes, or even executive temporary housing, as for example with the idea of Victorian village temporary housing.

There is also the need for furnishing to consider. Short-term temporary home rentals may need to be pre-furnished, whereas temporary mobile homes for executive standard mobile homes may be better provided as unfurnished temporary housing.


Training and skills development

This need for mass emergency housing and temporary homes can be addressed by the provision of small, mobile, emergency housing kits.

These can also provide scope to train local unemployed people in basic construction skills in the on-site assembly of such units. If these same people were then allowed to rent these modular emergency homes, this would help them into transitional housing.


Transitional housing

Transitional living environments aim to help the resident become a productive member of society. Such facilities often offer low cost housing. Catering to those recovering from economic hardship, residents often graduate from a shelter to lesser crowded living situation.

Transitional living may or may not have other common threads among residents. It often provides professional support and education as well as a stable living environment. Common types of transitional living include transitioning from jail or prison, an addiction treatment centre or a mental health facility. Transitional living is provided by many well-known private and non-profit organisations, by government, churches and other charitable organizations.

One way of addressing this element of the housing crisis is to enable the provision of inexpensive transitional housing, not only for key workers, but also, for example, for women who are the victims of domestic violence, veterans, young and old people who have fallen on hard times. Transitional housing shelters as well as independent living units can be used to prevent homelessness.

The licence requirements for such homes can also be a barrier to the rapid delivery of emergency housing, although some volume housebuilders, like Barrett transitional homes, have considered providing these.

Associated issues are the types of specification required for the different client groups, like transitional homes for teens, transitional homes for chemical dependency, and transitional homes for drug addicts, as well as other client groups like veterans and women. All of these may require different styles, furnishings and décor, especially for traditional group homes and where government funding for transitional homes is required.


The need for key worker housing

Central London is fast becoming a ghetto for either the very rich or the very poor. Those on average incomes are excluded, including hundreds of thousands of public sector workers vital to the wellbeing of the city.

Housing shortage in London is just the most perverse example of a growing crisis in a number of property hotspots across the country. As house prices have increased sharply, earnings particularly in the public sector, have risen modestly at best.

At the same time social housing has been decreasing, with only about half the houses sold on ‘right to buy’ being replaced by new social homes to rent. More than 70% of new social housing tenants now claim housing benefit.

Although teachers, nurses, social workers, policeman and other ‘key workers’ earn too much to qualify for social housing, most earn too little to afford to buy a home.

Interest-free "equity loans" may be available for some key workers of up to £50,000, and even up to £100,000 for some London teachers. Shared ownership homes provided by housing associations are similarly fundable.


What is a “key worker”?

People who work in the NHS, education, police, Prison Service, Probation Service, local authority, firefighting, Ministry of Defence, Environmental Health, and the Highways Agency traffic officers service may be classified as a ‘key worker’.

The definition is often limited to those with formal qualifications in their sector and may vary from locality to locality – see for example the information on “Housing Solutions” who provide affordable homes to rent in the South East.

They also have strict rules about who can rent a house from them, often requiring people to be on a local authority housing waiting list.


Key worker housing

While it is clearly not possible to provide the permanent keyworker homes that ideally should be available, key worker housing schemes can be envisaged, possibly as intermediate rent schemes.

To avoid the tragedy of losing NHS nurses, teachers, firemen, policemen and other key workers in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and other housing shortage hot spots, it is essential that Government enables housing schemes for key worker accommodation, if not for purchase, at least on short to medium term affordable rents. It will of course need to tackle the thorny question of key worker mortgages, maybe even linking these to keyworker jobs as well as keyworker living.


Relocatable homes

Emergency housing, temporary homes, transitional living, and key worker accommodation can all be provided by modern, factory built pre-fabricated, relocatable homes. Many of these are already delivered as affordable, transportable, relocatable Park Homes, although it seems unusual for these to ever be re-sited elsewhere.

Transportable, portable homes come in a range of sizes and designs, usually for sale in quite often highly desirable locations. It is now not unusual to find conventional estate agents offering village relocatable homes for sale as part of their permanent homes mix of properties. Such onsite relocatable home prices can even rival lower end traditional housing.

There are also relocatable cabin homes, often supplied as imported ‘log home’ kits, although these are often not relocatable in sections, but have to be completely disassembled in order to be moved.


Park homes

Park homes are pre-built portable homes, either supplied as volumetric units or assembled in sections on site. Taking advantage of the caravan and mobile homes regulations, they have to be capable of being moved and re-sited in sections. Generally built to enhanced caravan shell standards, these are usually treated in two sections of about 2.5 meter width to enable them to be transported on the roads by lorry without the need for special convoy police supervision.

Able to provide rooms of up to around five metres (16ft 6 inches) wide, designer relocatable homes provide two-, three- and four-bedroom accommodation, often with full kitchens and bathrooms. Many of these high-tech, lifestyle relocatable homes are sold by manufacturers through site owner developers in relocatable home villages who license the site ‘pitches’ to the buyer, usually on three year renewable terms, although ‘pitch’ fees can be increased annually.

Prices for these pre-built relocatable portable homes range from around £45,000 to £200,000 + VAT delivered to site. These model hi-tech designer homes generally includes fully fitted kitchens, bathrooms, fitted wardrobes and central heating.

However, if delivered as ‘Kit homes’ for onsite assembly and completion, the same size custom built luxury park homes can be supplied without the need to charge VAT.

Such custom-built model park homes can be sited individually on lakesides, in woodlands, orchards and large gardens, as well as city locations and national parks. Subject to sufficient space being available for each residential park home, access and potential movement for relocation, these can all be delivered without affecting trees or damaging their roots.

Custom built modular homes are very ‘green’, i.e. environmentally sustainable. They can be sited in town and country, wherever a suitable parcel of land is available. They can be built by mobile homes park developers on mobile residential home sites as part of a community, or by individual modular home builders. Up market materials can also be used, like green oak features, cedar cladding, shingles and slate roofing.


Homes for today and tomorrow

It is now more than 50 years since the Government’s 1961 Parker Morris report “Homes for Today and Tomorrow” set a benchmark for UK housing standards. However, as the following extract shows, it went further, pointing up actual and anticipated changes in society:

“…changes in the way in which people want to live, the things which they own and use, and in their general level of prosperity, and perhaps the greater informality of home life, make it timely to re-examine the kinds of homes that we ought to be building, to ensure that they will be adequate to meet the newly emerging needs of the future, as well as basic human needs which always stay the same.”

Since then, shortage of land for development, changes in available finance, moves toward individuation, increased mobility, student, adolescent and elderly housing, as well as political interference, have all led to ever smaller homes, changes in tenure, and the way they are provided.

The arrival of ‘micro apartment’ projects and ‘Pocket Living’ with units of +/-26 m2 requiring special dispensations and Supplementary Planning Guidance, are some of the latest manifestations of this.

However, today, while Parker Morris standards may have been eclipsed by these changes, its concept together with an increased urgency for ‘shelter’ – whatever its type or size – seems to elude the thinking of our planners and politicians. They appear locked into the priorities and demands of the 1960s. This may have credible currency for the nation’s long term housing needs, but it is deaf to the clamouring demands for ‘housing now’.

Furthermore – and heuristically – the question of long-term location seems absent when determining the need for permanent housing in the distant future.

Changes in industrial demands, manufacturing techniques, technology, job types, occupational demands, commuting and distance working, are all likely to affect considerations of ‘place’. Despite the heroic efforts of local authorities to ‘reinvent’ towns where industries have collapsed or moved away, long term decline and abandonment is evident everywhere.

The ‘rustbelts’ of the USA and worked out mining districts of Australia, bear witness to the fact that communities can be transient. The comfortable, settled, centuries-old towns and villages that pepper the UK countryside hold no guarantee of their future endurance.

Additionally, there is no certainty that the thousands of immigrants currently adding pressure to our immediate housing needs will not wish to return to their countries of origin as and when political and economic conditions improve in them.

Rationally, to address today’s housing crisis, the UK should revisit its planning and land use priorities and embrace the need for the short term provision of smaller, low cost, possibly mobile homes. As in wartime, it is these that are required for emergency, temporary, transitional and similar homes and now as then there should be few if any restriction on where they can be sited.

As this paper has shown, such homes can be environmentally sustainable, be of varying standards, and allow for fast and easy redevelopment of their sites. As and when alternative permanent housing is needed for tomorrow’s inhabitants – if found necessary – they can be improved and extended, if not replaced or relocated.

An added bonus is that they can help avoid the need for special dispensations to build permanent micro apartments and facilitate the provision of Parker Morris space standards where appropriate.


Professor Dr. Michael Benfield is a chartered environmentalist, chartered builder, chartered surveyor and member of the Institute of Wood Science, he is one of the four co-founders of the International Green Party movement. Born in Coventry, he ‘grew up on the tools’ as an apprentice carpenter and builder and was educated at Warwick School, Loughborough, Coventry and Newcastle Universities. Formerly visiting Professor of Civil & Construction engineering research with the University of Wales, Newport, he is chairman of specialist timber frame engineers, Benfield ATT Group.

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