5 Minutes with Keith Simpson, Consultant within Modular Innovation

From beginning his career with two large social housing providers within construction and repairs and maintenance, Keith took up a Chief Officer role with LB Islington. This subsequently led him to set up his own management consultancy within the sector. Now (supposedly) retired at 74 years old, he is passionate about getting the sector to increase its technical skills to prevent another Grenfell tragedy and in adopting the use of modular technology. Seeing the opportunity to work with his extended senior network from within the sector, he is working with Steve Makowski an exceptional training expert to create a National Housing Academy to be launched in the New Year. This is how we kicked things off.

Mark: Modular technology has slowly been gaining traction in the market over the last couple of years, but the Chancellors autumn budget has really put offsite at the forefront of industry news. What impact do you think modular housing can make in cutting the deficit of 100,000 homes that need to be built a year?

Keith: There is no doubt that if we require 300,000 homes each year, the current major house builders will not and cannot build them. We may get to 200,000 by liberating the regional contractors to build more, but the national contractors have a model to control prices and profits and they will not change it. Even if they wanted to, they could not build more because the country simply does not have sufficient skilled trade operatives to build traditionally. In fact, building traditionally has been a disaster for my sector of social housing since the 1970’s. The build quality of timber frame Section 106 housing is largely dreadful with huge consequences for future maintenance costs and this is what we can address in modular building. The country has 4million social housing properties and has undertaken 3 repairs per property, per year since I joined the sector in the late 1960’s. At an average cost of £100 per repair, this equals £12billion per year adding no value to the properties whatsoever and this money could build 120,000 modular homes each year. We could build 200,000 homeless units for £35,000 each and save the untold millions spent each week on hotel and dreadful private sector accommodation.

Mark: Having been influential in how local authorities and social housing providers invest in housing projects, over recent years, what key barriers do you feel have prevented offsite’s uptake and what measures can help combat them?

Keith: There has been a number of things that have prohibited the advance of modular.

  1. Most people fear change and there are few people in social housing willing to put their heads above the parapet and innovate.
  2. It has taken a while for the mortgage companies to accept that the good ones have a life expectancy equal or greater than traditional build but now most companies have LABC, Premier, Bopas etc.
  3. The early modular houses were like the old prefabs, mostly built in and around Hull where the caravan industry is and the build quality was not good enough.
  4. They were too expensive, although I don’t know one social landlord who knows the ‘true cost’ of the houses they are building. The current price of modular is mostly derived from small pilot schemes to prove the principle and once factories are producing lots of modular houses, the prices will fall as the new supply chains drive value. 
  5. Procurement is just as bad in social housing as it is in the rest of the country, so nobody knew how to write a specification for modular housing that delivered the quality product which was necessary to convince development staff that modular was a viable option. Totally Modular have just received a specification to price from a huge national organisation which clearly demonstrates that whoever wrote it had no understanding at all of the engineering process in building a modular house. This is a big problem!
  6. One critical fact has been that local authorities have been prevented from building homes since Thatcher stopped them in the 70/80’s but they now have the freedom to build once again. The modular homes that I am promoting, are already in discussions with LA’s about creating factories where the demand is, by creating a joint venture company. The last thing we want to see is articulated lorries clogging up the road network with houses, so build them close to where they are needed by LA’s and HA’s cooperating to ensure the factories are busy and save the environment.

Mark: You have obviously looked at modular housing objectively as a solution to the housing crisis. In showcasing the uptake of this form of building, what key figures do you feel make offsite a compelling alternative to more conventional methods of construction? (cost, thermal efficiencies etc)

Keith: I could fill a book with this but here are “the 10 commandments”:-

  1. The build quality is much better.
  2. The quality is consistent with an engineering product.
  3. Foundations are easier to provide.
  4. It doesn’t get wet when being built.
  5. Thermal efficiency is much better and the equivalent of Code 3 or 4 can be reached easily. I doubt if there is one house built by the national contractors on Section 106 in the last 10 years that would pass the thermal imaging test on insulation.
  6. It is quicker to build giving more rental income.
  7. It is less environmentally damaging with virtually no waste.
  8. It inconveniences the local population less as they don’t have a construction site nearby for years.
  9. Landlords can specify and standardise all the internal fittings like kitchen, bathroom, toilets, taps etc to reduce future maintenance costs.
  10. We can create lots of new local factory based jobs not affected by the construction sector problems.

Mark: Skills within the industry is almost a habitual topic of conversation (50 thousand retiring from the industry each year with only some four thousand entering via the apprenticeship route), with Brexit multiplying the magnitude of the problem. You have recently driven the idea of a “National Housing Academy” in response to this skills shortage. How can you see this working with manufacturers and the industry as a whole?

Keith: I could write another book on this as a result of work I did over 3 or 4 years looking at why we could not get young people into construction. This took me into working with Nick Boles, the Skills Minister under Cameron, where his civil servants in BIS developed the Apprentice Levy which I fought for, believing that the existing funding of apprenticeships was a farce and a waste of public money. You are correct about construction having an ageing population not being replaced by young people and this is why:-

  1. The introduction of “lump labour” and the subcontracting model signalled the death knell of legitimate construction apprenticeships and this occurred at the same time as LA’s being instructed by the government to stop being providers of services and become ‘enablers’.
  2. LA’s were a major supplier of legitimate apprenticeships and the void they left has never been filled by the construction industry. This was not helped by the “boom and bust” nature of the house building sector with frequent redundancies that made construction an unpopular career choice and therefore not promoted by schools as a career.
  3. The term “apprenticeship” has been abused over the last 40 odd years since the introduction of NVQ’s. As an example, we had large supermarkets creating ‘retail apprenticeships’ for young people stacking shelves just to draw down the funding from the SFA to help pay their wages, these were traineeships and not apprenticeships. The claim that it is possible to complete a legitimate apprenticeship in two years, mainly in a college, is nonsense and I was told by contractors that the young people were 60% able to earn a living when they had finished their training. We need to mirror the German model where an apprenticeship is viewed as a serious qualification like a degree, although degrees in this country have also been devalued over the last 40 years.  
  4. The CITB lost its way years ago and like most quangos has not served the sector well. Having “hived off” its training business, it is now trying to find a new role for itself but my ambition is to keep modular housing as an engineering function and well away from the major house builders and construction. The National Housing Academy (NHA) is currently exploring a partnership with both the Institute of Engineering and Technology and Dudley FE College which is the country’s leading virtual reality, BIM, CAD and modular housing establishment, training young people for an environment that will be much different from todays. Our aim is to create new qualifications from the factory floor apprenticeships to professional qualifications in design, quality control, management etc.
  5. I am currently pulling together a group of interested modular manufacturers to create the Trailblazer Groups required to create the new courses which will be delivered by our accredited providers such as Dudley FE College with the qualifications then awarded via the IET.

Mark: And how will this approach differ from previous efforts made by further education providers and organisations like the CITB?

Keith: I think it important to preface my comments here by saying that in moving from Sheffield to Peterborough to Islington in my career, there was a discernible reduction in the level of skills available as I moved into London, hence the skills shortage is much more acute down there.

Our approach will be totally different from the old model but will align very clearly with the new government thinking around apprenticeships. In the past the courses were designed by the awarding bodies, the employers sent their people to the most convenient provider and accepted the quality of training provided, which the further south you went the worse it became. With the introduction of the Apprentice Levy, the employer is clearly in the driving seat which means they create the courses and content, they chose the training provider most capable of delivering the course which is then independently verified by an external end assessor. However, this will not address the poor quality of training provision which is essentially due to poor salaries paid to tutors and the fact that nobody has served a legitimate apprenticeship in construction since 1970, so unless they are 65 years old the tutors will probably not have the depth of knowledge to impart to the learners. These were my findings when I did the work with BIS.

In the social housing sector there has never been any bespoke technical training courses designed with input from the employers, hence we have sent joiners, plumbers, electricians on courses designed for construction or FM both of which are very different from social housing repairs and maintenance and it is no wonder that we lose so many to those two sectors. Our new bespoke courses will be designed by the sector for the sector and consequently will raise the skill level, improve productivity and provide better value for money for social landlords.

Importantly we see the NHA playing an important role supporting TPAS (Tenant Participation and Advisory Service) in helping take tenants into work, inform them of their responsibilities and teach them how to live safely in their homes. Steve has just created a 5-minute video showing all the bad practice that puts them in danger of fire in their homes, with the unique ability to monitor on his system if individual tenants have accessed it via their iPhone or laptop. This is technology adding real value!

Mark: You have touched on the formation of Trailblazer groups and the development of a central portal ran by the National Housing Academy.  In principle how do you see this working?

Keith: I have long held a belief that if a group of people have a vision to create something new and they think positively 100% of the time, the universe will support it and this is certainly my experience of working with Steve Makowski and his team in creating the NHA. We could not have progressed with the project had Steve not created an IT system for both the Indian and Saudi Governments to centrally manage their training and I had not created the Direct Works Forum (DWF) 20 years ago, which now has 115 HA and LA employer members and is the principle forum for technical managers in social housing. The IT system not only holds all the learning material but also provides absolute transparency of the whole learner journey and can be accessed by all the stakeholders involved in the process such as employers, training providers, the learners, accreditation bodies, the SFA, the government (if it wishes to look?), schools, training consortia etc. I believe there is nothing quite like it in the FE sector and it addresses the lack of transparency which was such a key finding in my time looking at the old model. The important function for social housing is that the system can provide each individual member with a portal to access all the training created by their Trailblazer Groups for free and allow them to create their own bespoke Learning and Development Academy. In this way, the sector will create and own its own training courses and any profit generated will be reinvested to improve the future-proofing of skills for social housing providers.

Our initial intention with the NHA is to create Trailblazer Groups of technical managers in the DWF to design the new bespoke qualifications and accredit them via the NHA, which will initially be a CLG (not for profit) until we can obtain the charitable status that we desire in around a year’s time. We can do a similar thing with modular manufacturers and accredit the apprenticeships via the Institute of Engineering and Technology to ensure the separation from the construction sector. I must say that ‘retirement’ is amazingly exciting!

undefined Keith Simpson, Consultant within Modular Innovation