The government has launched a call for evidence to back up a proposal for five major departments - the Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Education, Department for Transport and Ministry of Defence - to adopt a "presumption" in favour of off-site construction for infrastructure projects.
The consultation accompanies the annual National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline, which analyses the progress of projects which are already underway, as well as planned development in areas such as roads, rail and energy.
Infrastructure expert Graham Robinson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, welcomed the proposals.
"The presumption in favour of off-site manufacturing for infrastructure will make a huge difference to productivity across the industry," he said. "The government is the largest client for the industry, and by leveraging its buying power, it will be able to help the infrastructure sector modernise."
"The infrastructure sector has always been faced with a fragmented approach by government to the procurement of the UK's infrastructure, but this initiative could potentially save billions in improved productivity, and at the same time it will boost competitiveness," said Robinson.
"Off-site manufacturing will also help spread growth more evenly across the UK, as factories that make components for the roads programme, bridges, hospitals and schools can be located almost anywhere with access to good quality labour and transport links. Britain's school building programme is a key priority area," he said.
Robinson said that the plans could be hampered by a lack of industry capacity and not enough clarity in the government’s pipeline.
"If the government is really serious about using modern methods of construction then it needs to get serious about its pipeline, and then the industry can gear up. As it currently stands, it’s lacking capacity to deliver," Robinson said.
Robinson said there was a lack of certainty by the construction industry about whether all the projects outlined in the pipeline would go ahead. He also noted that the pipeline contains no mention of infrastructure projects around ports, which are likely to need investment to deal with the expected impact on imports and exports from Brexit.
In its call for evidence (12 page / 280KB PDF) the government said it was proposing a platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly (P-DfMA) when it came to building projects for the five departments.
It said if it adopted a "consistent and strategic approach" to the procurement, design, construction and operation of infrastructure projects across central government this could help revitalise the UK construction sector, support the creation of higher-value manufacturing jobs, and deliver efficiency savings.
The P-DfMA approach would mean the use of a set of digitally designed components across multiple types of building, and apply them wherever possible. The government said it expected that the development and definition of the components would be done by industry, and that there would be collaboration between manufacturers, with components conforming to agreed standards.
Examples of projects where DfMA has already been used include pre-cast platforms and beams for Transport for London’s extension to the Northern Line at Battersea and Nine Elms. Off-site manufacturing is also being used in sectors such as schools and housing.
The infrastructure pipeline analysis (60 page / 6.62MB PDF) said around £190bn of planned infrastructure investment would take place by 2020/21, but over a 10-year period projected public and private investment amounted to £600bn.
It said in the past 12 months over 400 infrastructure projects, including a £63 million coastal defence scheme in Lancashire, had been completed and moved into operation. Meanwhile of 158 projects designated as national priorities since 2010, almost 40% were now complete and 40% are under construction or in ongoing delivery.
Robinson said that the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal would have an impact on the importance of ports.
"In a post-Brexit world Britain must look to prioritise its investment in new super ports, able to take new ultra-large containerships, as trade begins to tilt away from EU towards Asia and other faster grower trading nations, rather than relying on Europe's mega ports," he said.