Story updated on 31 January to reflect the government’s Help to Buy deadline extension.
For 29-year-old Simon* and his partner, moving to Bristol promised the chance to live “halfway between our families” in a city they know and love.
Unlike the stereotype of grinning Londoners heading up the M4 waving bags of money, they are relocating from Yorkshire. Despite having good jobs, as first-time buyers they have found it tough to find somewhere they could afford a mortgage on in the city’s fast-overheated market.
A housing scheme in progress off Bonnington Walk in Lockleaze seemed to offer the solution.
The 185-home Bonnington development, owned by financial services giant Legal & General (L&G), is one of several in Bristol being built using modern ‘modular’ construction methods. The central core of a home is built in L&G’s factory near Leeds before being shipped to the site and finished there, which on paper is quicker and more efficient than building from scratch onsite.
Insulation and regular brickwork began going onto the modular cores in late summer 2022. By November, Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees and L&G chief executive Sir Nigel Wilson formally launched Bonnington, which is only L&G’s second modular scheme. Rees said he was “delighted” at how it “combines affordability [50% of homes meet the definition] with sustainability”.
But within weeks, Lockleaze residents noticed nearly finished homes being taken apart. Before Christmas, by which time Simon and his partner had hoped to move in, L&G had written with bad news. Problems with workmanship and materials meant the homes would not be ready until early summer 2023.
The announcement meant buyers not only putting their lives on hold for six months but facing an anxious wait on extending mortgage offers, with borrowing rates having risen sharply over 2022.
Some, who signed up to the national Help to Buy loan scheme, look set to miss out altogether – potentially leaving them unable to buy anywhere. That’s because the homes will not be finished in time for a deadline set by the government, despite that having been extended by another six weeks on 30 January, with housing minister Lucy Frazer saying there could be “no consideration” of a further extension.
‘This was meant to be a fast build’
Over recent years, modular house building has been hyped as an important measure towards tackling the national housing crisis. The homes are quick to build and can have a lower carbon footprint than traditional methods. But the new techniques have not caught on as fast as expected with the UK building industry, and firms including L&G have lost money.
Bonnington, where homes are designed for “maximum energy efficiency”, makes up about a fifth of 1,000 new dwellings planned for Lockleaze, most of which are not modular.
But it is not the only modular scheme in Bristol to have made slower progress than promised. In December 2022, Bristol Live reported that buyers at the BoKlok development in south Bristol, on which Ikea is a partner, had also been told they would not be moving into new homes in time for Christmas as expected.
Some reportedly had to be put up in Airbnbs, with Boklok citing “challenges with regard to supply chain, materials and labour”.
In Lockleaze, L&G’s Bonnington site is directly behind the back gardens of homes on Landseer Avenue. Residents tell the Cable brickwork began to go onto the modular cores at the end of summer 2022, followed by windows.
“The windows seemed to be a problem – one night I was looking out of my kitchen, there were three guys with torches, looking at the frames,” says Landseer Avenue resident Malcolm, who is retired.
Soon afterwards, “plastic sheets went up around the frames”, Malcolm adds. “Then they started taking bricks off.”
The Bonnington development, built on a green space once occupied by allotments, has attracted plenty of opposition in Lockleaze. But Malcolm and his wife Debra say they are in favour of the scheme – so long as the homes are good-quality.
“I feel sad for people, I want them to have homes to live in, that’s what we need,” Malcolm says. “This was meant to be a fast build – but I feel like some of the people working on it don’t understand how [the modular method] works, you could see them scratching their heads.”
‘New builds need to live up to high standards’
Local councillor Heather Mack says she has heard from a number of affected prospective residents. They include people who were going through Help to Buy and are now unlikely to be able to move in.
“They noticed quite a serious mistake and pulled all the brickwork down,” she says. “I would like to see all new builds in Lockleaze living up to the very high standards they’re supposed to be built to.” Mack adds that she believes L&G is now taking appropriate action to sort the problems out.
A Legal & General Modular Homes spokesperson said issues had been down to build quality and delays getting the right kinds of supplies. “We are committed to creating homes to our exacting quality standards, and our programme takes into account delivery to these standards,” they said.
All prospective buyers have received “individual timelines for when they will be able to move, as well as help and advice depending on their circumstance”, the spokesperson added. “Our delivery programme has also considered the wellbeing of all of our customers as it is important that when they move into their new homes, that they are able to do so without disturbance from ongoing building operations.”
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said that as Bonnington is an L&G project, the council has no formal powers over the site.
“We are aware they are working to complete their development as quickly as possible,” the council’s spokesperson added. “Modern methods of construction (MMC) is an innovative tool to tackle the housing crisis and address the barriers to delivering affordable homes.”
The spokesperson added that the authority is learning from the sites being developed using different methods “to improve our knowledge and our ability to work with MMC companies”.
The council has also written to the government to ask it to extend the Help to Buy deadline by a further 12 months. “Many people will not be able to continue the purchase of their homes because of delays, and without this funding they will be unable to afford them,” the spokesperson said.
Simon and his partner recently got better news on their mortgage, with an extension being offered provided they stick with Bonnington. But he says the problems have shaken their faith, and they are likely to back out, meaning their move to Bristol is back to the drawing board.
“We could keep waiting for this – but I don’t have any confidence that Legal & General will be able to build our house,” he says.
*Name has been changed