Supply chain integration crucial to advancing sustainable housing in the UK

GCHU Intern and BA Geography student Matthew Grigg explores the role of supply chain integration in developing sustainable housing in the UK.

Matthew Grigg

GCHU Intern and BA Geography student, University of Oxford

Email: [email protected]

Supply chains in the housing industry feature a diverse range of operations including planning, procurement, design, and construction. There has been a significant drive towards sustainability in housing development in recent decades. In the UK, there has been a recommended need for sustained construction to increase housing supply to meet demand as house market prices have increased. Real estate’s sustainability rating has meanwhile increased from the seventh to the third most important acquisition attribute, but government policies, like the Code For Sustainable Homes, have not sufficiently accounted for the implementation and supply of sustainable technologies through the supply chain. Thus, the UK is in need of a framework which can consistently deliver sustainable homes and a sustainable supply chain behind them.

In the early stages of the supply chain, planning and policy on a national scale have been disconnected from the realities of heterogenous sustainable implementation. For instance, a study on government energy efficiency policies reveal significant assumption about the viability of widespread on-site photovoltaic energy supply. Past plans for energy supply have failed to appreciate the scale of the challenge for the UK to move away from traditional technologies like heat pumps to solar in low-energy homes.  Another policy, the Sustainable Communities Plan, has in both the Thames and Manchester regions at times struggled to secure environmentally sustainable developments that are also socially and economically cohesive. Moreover, pre-construction planning of homes requiring the EcoHomes ‘very good’ rating has featured limited consideration of social and economic sustainability for the developments created. For developing sustainable supply chains for housing, a study of Wisconsin municipal governments from the USA has shown how constraints in supplying sustainable homes can be alleviated through providing greater powers to local authorities in the earlier supply chain. Better integrating planning in the supply chain to local powers could therefore improve UK sustainable supply chains.

Intermediate stages of the housing supply chain, such as procurement, are challenged by the need for private sector developers to collaborate with a wider range of stakeholders in land procurement. This is not a challenge isolated to UK supply chains, as the regional approach of the Sustainable Communities Initiative in Baltimore allowed for greater stakeholder collaboration, but was hindered by a lack of private sector commitment to organised sustainable housing supply. Confidence of the private sector in sustainability has been hampered by the lack of homogeneity in the methodological implementation of sustainable technologies and greater guidance, alongside targeted actions like incentives, within a regional approach that better connects the local scale planning would be advantageous. A key aspect of environmental sustainability is the allocation and use of land for building, the need for which can be reduced by retrofitting existing homes. Research has indicated the capacity for empty homes in the UK to be secured for sustainable retrofit by procurement consortia, allowing the upskilling of local and regional stakeholders, potentially benefitting new build sustainable supply too. Indeed, procurement consortia could provide greater direction and efficiency to sustainable supply in bringing together separate networked supply chains, allowing greater focus on sustainable outcomes beyond fulfilling regulatory procedures.

Challenges to sustainable construction include the homogeneity of provision; persisting environmental impacts; and inefficiencies in construction management, with off-site production postulated as a potential solution. Assembling units off-site, while offering greater efficiency and reduced environmental impacts, is dependent on well-co-ordinated supply chains. This was highlighted in a survey of 110 Chinese construction companies which showed the reluctance of the construction industry in China to implement off-site assembly due to insufficient planning and co-ordination. A study of smaller builders in Wuhan, China illustrated the challenge of adopting such sustainable techniques in the presence of poor waste management, rigid planning policies, and rapid development pressures. The UK context differs to China, but these insights suggest smaller builders can construct more sustainably when there is greater supply chain integration. Additionally, it is important for there to be uptake after construction to maximise sustainable outcomes. A broad focus-group study of European citizens found mistrust by home buyers in private sector stakeholders with regard to energy supply and data protection in sustainable technologies, which substantiates the need for greater transparency and connectivity between stakeholders. Whilst there is need for supply-side reform of UK housing, a consumer-based approach that markets the mass-customisation of sustainable homes, such as that in Japan, is absent in the UK. Such an approach could advance the appetite for sustainable homes, enhancing delivery, and increasing supply chain confidence to integrate and provide sustainable housing.

Throughout the UK housing supply chain, it is clear greater integration between different processes and stakeholders from planning to purchasing is needed to advance sustainability. Focus on a more qualitative approach that seeks to strengthen relationships in the supply chain is attested to by recommendations to better involve communities at all stages of the supply chain to focus on placemaking. A more coherent model could gain traction in the UK, with consideration of the heterogeneity that sustainable housing and community development commands. A regional approach would be well placed to do this to better guide the efficacy of an integrated sustainable supply chain and sustainable housing delivery, attentive to and adaptive of local scale conditions and wider policies.