Mark Farmer needs little introduction. His role in suggesting change and modernising the way the built environment is created has seen him become a major figure in the offsite sector. Gary Ramsay caught up with him to speak about the state of the industry at the start of a new decade.
Q: Your recent appointment as MMC Champion is the latest move from Government in taking offsite manufacture seriously at the highest level – what is your vision for the role and what do you want to achieve? Does the post have a timeframe?
Mark Farmer (MF): To be honest, it is a formalisation of what I have been doing anyway for the last 3-4 years – acting as an advocate for change and to cause government and industry to reflect on what is an increasingly urgent need to reform how we design and construct buildings. The role has various components but primarily allows me to act as a bridge between government and industry and to advise on potential MMC-related policy interventions in the housing sector. There are lots of people in the sector with lots of opinions on what needs to change.
Part of my job will be to cut through the noise, understand the policy context and reality, including with other departments beyond MHCLG and prioritise activity that can be coordinated preferably at a national scale. The post is annually reviewed and I know there will be a clear desire to make things happen within a parliamentary cycle for obvious reasons. I see the political focus on MMC at the moment as a real positive but I also want to make sure we do not make short term decisions that ultimately hinder the development of a sustainable long term MMC market.
Q: The role of 'overseas ambassador' for offsite is a very interesting development– tapping into international networks and trade opportunities etc. How do you envisage that working? Is the industry really worth a potential £40billion when mature?
MF: I have built a strong international network based on interest since the 2016 publication of 'Modernise or Die'. This has made it clear to me that most developed economies are facing the same structural deterioration in their construction markets as the UK. The approaches being adopted when it comes to adoption of offsite manufacture and MMC all vary but I'm very clear that we should all be sharing international best practice and experiences if we are going to avoid costly mistakes. Manufacturing and technology are also eminently tradeable in IP and product terms, so if we can lead the world in certain aspects of this then that by implication creates an export opportunity. Whether that is worth £40 billion or not remains to be seen but there is no doubt that a MMC-led industrial renaissance is a multi-billion opportunity for UK plc.
The immediate priority though is the UK home market. As it stands, I believe we have a real short to medium-term need for imported market disruption by world leading and proven offsite businesses to avoid a constant cycle of repeating the same mistakes. It is an uncomfortable truth that many who operate at a senior level in the UK offsite sector are only influenced or informed by what they have done in the past or the environment everyone has been forced to work within and not all of that has been proven to be successful or sustainable. We need to really inject fresh thinking into the sector that reflects the latest advancements in technology and is also driven by a new paradigm shift n how we approach quality, building safety and decarbonisation of built assets. This will no doubt mean initially importing some ideas and approaches and seeing how they can be made to work in UK.
Q: The much publicised 'presumption in favour of offsite' by government departments seems to have stalled slightly – or at least been slow with contract awards. Are there any key reasons for this? How can this be improved/sped up?
MF: I think the press coverage recently on this has been hyped up by those looking for a story but it is also fair to say that the industry is rightly looking at the government to lead by example. I know from my involvement with the government's Smarter Infrastructure Working Group, which is responsible for co-ordinating via the IPA, the central government departments' activity in this area, that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to ensure any move to MMC is scalable and sustainable. This starts with product definition, standardisation and data protocols. That work is time consuming but is progressing and the DfE are about to significantly disrupt the contracting market with major MMC-led frameworks for new school building.
am under no illusions though that a wholesale re-education process also needs to start in central government as well as in local government and the private sector. Those responsible for procurement hold the keys to the transformation of how we deliver built assets. If we continue to buy on cheapest price and ask the wrong questions of the market, the 'presumption in favour of offsite' commitment will be meaningless. It is therefore important that the Construction Innovation Hub's work to deliver an outcome-based procurement model mandated for employment by government is delivered as soon as possible. There may also be a need for other policy levers impacting procurement rules, building safety and carbon compliances to accelerate change.
Read the full interview HERE