Deborah McLaughlin: How housing sector can sail winds of change

18th November 2020

Deborah McLaughlin Mulbury

It often takes a profound event to create meaningful and lasting change.

While COVID-19 has had a terrible impact on many people’s lives, upon communities and on the economy, few experiences in recent history have led to such significant transformation in the way we do things.

The technology to hold meetings remotely and to have huge swathes of the population working productively from home has been available for years, but it’s taken this unforeseen worldwide pandemic for these practices to become widely adopted.

There are, of course, many other ways it has proven what can be achieved when change becomes essential, not optional. It shows us there’s almost always a better way of doing things. The housing sector, and the myriad industries that enable and sustain it, can also learn from this event to do things better too.

For me, the three key drivers of change in the housing sector remain the same, demographic change, climate change and technological change. This pandemic will influence all three in different ways and the changes I foresee include:

More investment in ‘emerging’ towns and city regions

I believe we are going to see much greater investment coming forward in towns outside the major city regions as we see an improved residential offer emerging in our town centres and more focus on sustainability.

Our changes in demography and our increasing concerns about climate change will increase our focus on supporting sustainable communities where people live and work in the same area. The pandemic has shown us we don’t all need to work in our offices five days a week to be productive. For many people with the right technology we can work in our communities, support local businesses and have an improved quality of life.

To some extent this was already starting to happen before the pandemic, but I think we’ll see an acceleration now in investors looking for opportunities to support the regeneration of many of our North West towns.

Changes to the way homes are designed

With more people working from home, the need for good quality space, both inside and outside, has become more important. Even sectors where homeworking would never have been considered previously, now have an element of it and I think this will continue post-pandemic. Surely, not everyone will be looking forward to resuming long, slow commutes to work, not least because of the impact on the environment.

How people use their homes will fundamentally change for many people and we need to think carefully about the need to make homes more flexible and sustainable to meet these shifting expectations. The property sector is responding to this and architects and housebuilders are starting to amend their house types to accommodate homeworking.

Mulbury has already seen the success that having co-working spaces designed into our apartment buildings can bring, allowing residents to work from home but with a change of scenery and a feeling of community.  We’ve always recognised the importance of good outdoor space, and we’re now looking at how we can design more flexibility into bedrooms and living areas to cater for those who will now be spending a lot more time at home.

More funding for housing and regeneration projects

The housing sector will be key to the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, both economically and in providing the homes that people need.

Government recently unveiled its £7.39bn Affordable Homes Programme for 2021-26. And in times of economic downturn we often look to the government for a stimulus to create jobs and new homes to kickstart the recovery.

The good news is that many housebuilders have continued to develop on site and Registered Providers are working up their next five years of development programme so the sector can rise to the change and quickly mobilise. Certainly, Mulbury is seeing strong demand from for a range of housing developments, including shared ownership, affordable rent and ‘profit for purpose’ open market developments.

Employers showing a caring side

Like all industries, the property and construction sector is grappling with the challenges posed by social distancing and this means employers across the board are going to need to become more flexible.

Promoting staff wellbeing and retaining a strong company culture is going to be a major challenge.

The housing sector, and by extension the construction sector, is going to have to think about managing teams remotely with regular ‘keep in touch’ moments, virtual team lunches and other creative ways of supporting teams and maintaining productivity.

Adaptability is the new watchword

Whether it’s Registered Providers, private housebuilders, local authorities, funders, architects, planners, or the raft of other consultants that make our industry what it is; we all need to show resilience and agility to come through this challenge.

In these unprecedented times the sector will build on its strengths and those with a clear vision, strategy and focus, and who are prepared to become more agile, will ultimately bring positive changes to the industry.

Deborah McLaughlin is a non-executive director of Mulbury and former regional director of Homes England.