FDI into the UK still up; but where will we all live?

The UK’s Department for International Trade’s (DIT) inward investment results 2016 to 2017 show FDI into the UK is up 2% on the previous year, cementing an impressive run of success despite all the worries about Brexit and trade. Yes, the number of new jobs is down, but the figures still show that inward investors are not deterred. Where are these investments landing? Largely London and the South East. Where are we all going to live? That was firmly on the agenda at Hertfordshire’s Local Enterprise Partnership’s Building Solutions conference, co-hosted by Hertfordshire County Council and built environment specialists BRE.

Hertfordshire cradles the north and north-west boundary of London, stretching up to Cambridgeshire in the north. It is a leafy shire with an industrial past, notably in aerospace, and now very much part of the knowledge-economy, sitting in the middle of the London/Cambridge/Oxford triangle.

It is a location that houses Londoners escaping to family homes and gardens in the suburbs, as well as accommodating its own workforce with world-class skills in life sciences and technology. It is also strategically located between two international airports that serve both the business and leisure traveller, thereby making it a desirable location for the frequent flyer.

Firmly on the county’s agenda is the building of 91,000 homes by 2031; but congestion, resistance to more housebuilding, a shortage of building land, environmental concerns and a skills problem keep the debate on how this is to be achieved rolling.

Building a growth model for Hertfordshire was the key theme of the Building Solutions event. Major house builders, construction firms, developers, designers and architects as well as housing associations, local and central Government departments and further education colleges came together to attempt consensus on what this might look like.

Key to the debate is modern methods of construction (MMC) as a possible solution to Hertfordshire’s future housing needs. Speaker after speaker addressed the viability of building homes offsite in factories, harnessing advanced manufacturing techniques more visible in the aerospace industry, incorporating complex logistics thinking key to the retail industry, and then retraining onsite trades to assemble large structures rather than lay individual bricks and tiles. It is a game changer but already working well in northern Europe with the Netherlands showing clear leadership in this area.

Mark Farmer, CEO of Cast, spoke first. He outlined the implications for the housing industry one year on from the publication of his highly influential report into the construction sector, Modernise or Die. He said: “Modernise or Die is a challenge which has echoed around the market and hopefully raised awareness of unprecedented problems. New drivers for change are starting to impact which we have not seen before – discontent, skills crisis, technology.

“Emerging central and regional government policy and public sector direct client role is helping strategically to initiate industry on its modernisation journey. But we are still not yet at an irreversible tipping point. The homebuilding sector has more reason than most to now embrace the modernisation agenda – whether pushed or pulled!”

Other key speakers included Darren Richards, Managing Director, Cogent Consulting. Darren said that, in addition to Hertfordshire’s housing needs, the scale of the housing shortage in London created a huge opportunity for the county to find alternative house-building processes and practices to supply this demand. Rory Bergin, Partner, Sustainable Futures, from HTA Design, said: “Quality and placemaking are absolutely fundamental to success. Here in Hertfordshire you have the opportunity to take this forward and possibly create an exemplar scheme to showcase what can be achieved.”

Pauline Traetto, Managing Director, BRE Academy, said: “We, in association with Hertfordshire LEP and other key partners, are keen to produce a framework which enables the built environment sector in Hertfordshire to be best in class.”

What is clear is that a course of action that includes innovation as well as qualitative design solutions is needed. The question arose whether there is the potential for MMC enterprises to establish a base in the county, manufacturing components and pods to be transported to housebuilding sites locally rather than continue trucking them from locations largely in the north-east of England. How to achieve the right skills in the county – not only continue traditional housebuilding but also to innovate with modern methods – is still on the agenda.

But whether housebuilding is seen as traditional, artisan and man-hour intensive, or whether it should become part of Hertfordshire’s knowledge-based economy is perhaps the real question. Does Hertfordshire want to be cutting edge and future facing as it solves its housing needs or will the past continue to determine the future? These are both interesting and challenging times but Hertfordshire has a world-class opportunity to test every possible approach to housing locals as well as newcomers arriving on the back of the UK’s FDI performance. The world is watching; not just the rest of the UK.