Factory of future could provide social housing boost for region

Lee Parkinson hopes to create a Yorkshire factory that will help to ease our housing crisis. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright reports.

30 April 2015...... Lee Parkinson, the chief executive officer, at Efficiency North, a consortium of social housing providers based in Rotherham. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1008/25b

MANY epic business journeys begin without fanfare.

Lee Parkinson’s journey started in the back of van, on a cold day in 1989. His dad was a construction site manager, but, as a 16-year-old participant on the Youth Training Scheme, or YTS, he didn’t receive special treatment.

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The YTS project is synonymous with the Thatcher Government, and critics still believe that it was simply a means of turning school leavers into cheap labour during a period of mass unemployment.

But Mr Parkinson made the most of the opportunities that came his way, even if his career did have an inauspicious start.

“I remember sitting in a van, early one morning, with guys that had been down the club the night before,’’ he recalled. “It was very smelly and very cold. My father was driving to work on the same site. He wouldn’t let me drive in his van, because he thought it would be a good education for me to travel in the van with the fellers. That made me passionate about understanding the sector from the boardroom to the site cabin.”

Today, as the chief executive of Efficiency North, which is a Yorkshire-based consortium of social housing providers, he aims to help tackle the UK’s housing shortage.

He believes more building work could be done off-site to reduce cost, and this could lead to jobs being created in Yorkshire. Back in the 1980s, he was lucky to secure a placement with an employer who took a long-term view.

“I was offered an opportunity with a local contractor,’’ he said. “I came from a family that was already in the construction sector, so I had a pretty clear vision of what work was like.

“I went to a school on a large council estate in Darlington where, in the late 1980s, careers advice was pretty thin on the ground. There were usually two routes for people.

“They went into sixth form college, or they went into the big steel factory. or went to work in a shop.

“I had to find my own way. I was lucky enough to get a YTS placement with a contractor and they had an excellent scheme, and while the wages, at £29.50 a week, were very low, one of the things you did get was great training.”

He developed a fascination with procurement and supply chain management, and went on to secure senior roles at Wates Group, one of the largest family-owned contractors in the UK, and Carillion. Before becoming CEO of Efficiency North, he led a supply chain management and procurement consulting business.

Last year, the Efficiency North consortium was incorporated as a private company in public sector ownership. It moved to a new home in Rotherham, after spending eight years in property belonging to Sheffield City Council. Today, it is working collaboratively in a partnership named Re:allies with Procure Plus, a not-for-profit company that specialises in procuring goods and services for social housing, to ensure social housing schemes are developed more efficiently.

In the longer term, Mr Parkinson would like to see a factory created in Yorkshire which could build modular social houses.

“At Efficiency North, we can derive better value for our members and for the taxpayer...those savings in turn can be recycled and invested to deliver employment skills... which are good for the community,’’ he said.

For example, for every £1m that the consortium procures, two full-time training positions are created, and other funding is also made available to help people get on the career ladder.

Mr Parkinson added: “The savings that we make, we plough into things like getting people ready for work – giving young people driving lessons, or travel cards. So when they’re qualified, they actually have an idea of what’s expected of them, they have the tools in their bag so they are ready for work.”

Mr Parkinson believes that we need to re-think the way houses are built, which could mean that more of them arrive on a large van.

“We think there are smarter approaches, with the use of modern methods of construction to be able to build products away from the site, and assemble homes more quickly, and also to a higher quality,’’ he said.

“If we have facilities to do new build housing off site, then we want the communities around those production facilities to be touched by the work that’s going on in the factory.”

This “standardisation” process doesn’t mean that all homes will look the same. But it can save taxpayers’ money during a time of austerity by leading to greater efficiencies.

“We’re looking very closely at investing in our own off-site facilities, so we have our own catalogue of pre-built homes,’’ he said.

“The facility we have been looking at is over in the North West,’’ Mr Parkinson added, but he stressed that a similar facility could also be built in Yorkshire, probably close to the M1-M62 corridor,

“It would be proof-tested and trialled in the North West,’’ he said. “We’d look at that, and look to tweak and develop in Yorkshire and the Humber.”

But this doesn’t mean the death of the traditional building site. He still feels an affinity with his first workplace.

“The majority of the jobs are still required at site level,’’ he said. “People seem to think that modern methods take jobs away from sites, but buildings still need to be assembled... roofs still need to be put on, roads, sewers, and landscaping all still needs to happen.”

He wants to see more homes being built by the skilled labourers who will live in them. Great corporate journeys of discovery really can start in the back of a van.

Title: The chief executive, Efficiency North Limited, a consortium of social housing providers who collaborate to become more efficient

Education: Branksome Comprehensive School Darlington, Darlington College of Technology, Aston University Business School

Date of birth: May 8, 1973

First job: Site engineer

Car driven: Jaguar XF

Last book read: I am not a big reader of books for leisure but I do enjoy films, with Gone Girl a highlight for me last year

Favourite song: I am the Resurrection by The Stone Roses

Favourite holiday destination: The Northumberland Coast

What is the thing you are most proud of? My four children