Lime Legal

Close to the edge

Published 01 September 2023

The government wants social housing developers to cut construction costs by ten per cent a year. But will the whole process simply repeat the mistakes of the 1960s? Rosalind Bayley reports on the Egan revolution

There are two schools of thought about the way that events happen. Pessimists believe that history repeats itself. The more optimistic believe that sometimes you get a second chance. The story of the redevelopment of the Nightingale estate in Hackney, London could be taken to illustrate the first view.

A new concrete building system is imported after local decision makers are taken on an expenses-paid visit abroad. The experimental technology is adopted as part of a government-sponsored programme of innovation, designed to make building faster and cheaper.

You begin to get the picture. Is this the 1960s all over again and is Samuel Lewis Trust’s millennium showcase likely to be up for re-redevelopment 30 years from now? Has the government’s Egan agenda for rethinking the construction industry learned the lessons of the past or will they be repeated?

A closer look at the Nightingale estate, which is a high-profile Egan demonstration project, immediately dispels any obvious parallel with the 1960s, beyond the fact that the new houses on the estate are being built of concrete.

First that trip abroad. Yes, a group did go to the Netherlands, but the crucial members of the visiting team were residents. Residents’ leader Alice Burke went into one of the homes built using a system of concrete construction called tunnel form. ‘It was a lovely house. It was warm and you couldn’t hear what was going on in the next room. The couple had divided their loft space to make a beautiful double bedroom and a utility room,’ she says. Concrete was no problem for her – but then she has lived happily in a concrete flat on the Nightingale since the 1960s.

Tunnel form involves casting the concrete party walls and floors of each storey of the house as a single unit on a single day, and then fixing factory-made panels for the front and back walls.

This construction method gives flexibility. None of the internal walls are load bearing and the whole of the roof space can be used as the roof panels sit on concrete gables.

The Nightingale visitors discovered that tunnel form and other pre-fabrication systems have been used for Dutch houses for years. After hitting problems with industrial buildings in the 1960s, the Dutch and other mainland Europeans, set about putting right the problems rather than running away from the concept. Tunnel form has also been used to build hotels in the UK.

The Nightingale re-development is not just a trial of a new form of construction. Innovation was the key theme for Samuel Lewis in its centenary project, but it was primarily innovation in the process of development, as it is for Egan. So partnering – one of the key Egan concepts – is central. Client, designers, contractors and suppliers worked out the contract together, allowing a relationship of trust and of mutual problem solving to replace the previous culture of blame and buck-passing.

It was quite a job. The partners included Dutch, French and Belgian suppliers as pre-fabrication is still in its infancy here. Around 20 people had to gather for partnership meetings, and language, and more significantly, cultural, barriers had to be overcome. But the result was ‘very lengthy but fruitful meetings’, according to architect Alistair Walker of Watkins Gray International.

Consultation has also been integral to the Nightingale redevelopment process, an Egan principle conspicuously lacking in the 1960s.

But if the Nightingale is not the 1960s all over again, what about Egan itself? The similarities are striking. Government – primarily the Treasury through the DETR – is pushing a programme of construction innovation on a not-altogether-enthusiastic industry, though a minority have embraced the agenda with vigour. In the house-building sector, developers get most of their profits from land values, so there is less pressure to keep costs down.

Bad experience with system building in the 1960s has equated ‘non-traditional’ with ‘problem’ in the minds of the public, and probably helped to institutionalise a deep conservatism among house builders and buyers.

To get round this road block, the government has decided to use the Housing Corporation to bring about change. The corporation has ring-fenced £40 million from next year’s approved development programme (ADP) for schemes using pre-fabrication.

This is what must send a few alarm bells ringing.

If the private market doesn’t want to do it, is it wise to force the social sector to do so? Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) policy officer Merron Simpson believes nothing like the 1960s is likely to happen again, but says: ‘I would be very worried if the public sector leads and the private sector simply does not follow.’

An answer to that question probably depends on the weight given to the other factors within the Egan agenda. Savings on construction costs from new technologies are just one of the seven areas where government wants to see improvement.

For the moment, apart from the

£40 million of ADP, the corporation is pushing for signs that associations are thinking differently about their construction processes rather than setting numerical targets for outcomes. corporation technical development adviser Clive Clowes believes the culture change partnering represents is a big undertaking in an industry where professionals and building workers come out of college steeped in the adversarial relationship.

National Housing Federation head of regeneration and investment Abena Nsia also suggests most associations will need time and a lot of training to change the culture in development departments significantly.

Merron Simpson of the CIH believes this process has not been helped by the fact that there has been no consultation through the normal housing policy channels. The then corporation chief executive Anthony Mayer was on the task force, but decisions concerning the approved development programme were made without the involvement of other interested parties. ‘This cannot be a good start for successful implementation of the programme,’ she said.

Local government too has been largely bypassed, even though there is plenty of scope for Egan principles within the growing local authority stock refurbishment programmes, as the demonstration projects are showing.

But will rethinking the process actually deliver? So far, the corporation has made the case that any cost savings will take years to come through – costs may actually rise initially because of a shortage of suppliers of new components. ‘We have to be positive. We have to believe that Egan is correct,’ Clowes says. But that magic figure of ten per cent savings a year (see box) will create new Treasury pressure on the ADP eventually.

The Council for Mortgage Lenders believes that consideration of customer preferences has come rather late to the Egan agenda – despite the paper commitment to user and supplier involvement. A national consumer customer satisfaction survey is now being developed.

Yet new building systems in the private sector will only take off if purchasers are willing to buy, and lenders lend on, properties that are not built in the traditional way – though even the most innovative still tend to come clad in brick.

So are we about to see the dawning of a new age of construction? Those on the frontline suggest that the good things within Egan – and everyone stresses that there are many good things – will be realised, provided the agenda does not become too dominated by cost cutting.

Involvement, quality and sustainability must remain powerful and there must be checks to prevent over-cosy relationships developing between associations and contractors through partnering. It seems unlikely that we will once again see an orgy of non-traditional design. But then, back in the early 1950s, who would have predicted what was to come?