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Off-site Manufacture for Construction (Science and Technology Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 12th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 3:57 pm, 12th December 2018

My Lords, I should declare an interest as chancellor of Cranfield University, which is involved in off-site construction, and as chairman of the Woodland Trust, of which you will hear more anon. The construction sector in the UK is a big thing, and will see an investment of £600 billion over the next decade, including £44 billion for housing. The sector has low productivity, and lags behind other major industrial sectors in this country in productivity improvement. It faces some major challenges: the dash for housing and a lack of skills, which will only get worse with Brexit—as, indeed, everything appears to do.

The construction sector is at a crossroads. As a member of the Science and Technology Committee, which worked on this report, I welcome the opportunity of this important debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Patel for his chairmanship, and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, for his impressive expertise, charmingly and modestly offered.

Off-site construction offers a major contribution to thinking about and delivering a revolution in the construction sector. Our report defines what we mean by off-site construction: I am sure all readers of it are now fully conversant with the difference between volumetric and panelised construction. Indeed, off-site construction is not a new phenomenon. Prefabricated buildings of many sorts have been around since the time of the original prefabs, and many self-build and individual-build houses have depended substantially on prefabricated elements.

We now have an opportunity not only for the UK to maintain its position at the forefront of off-site manufacturing globally, in the commercial and high-rise residential sectors, but to gain major benefits in the low-rise residential sector, where the UK currently lags behind. Our report outlined the benefits of off-site construction. A recent National House-Building Council report showed that the construction industry companies currently involved in off-site construction were most motivated by a number of factors: first, improved quality in what they could offer; secondly, efficiency and productivity; and, thirdly, accelerated delivery, with shorter end-to-end construction times and considerably shorter times on-site.

Labour and skill shortages were another driver. There is an aging workforce and the impending risks to the labour market of Brexit—and it appears that the Brexit labour market applies to Prime Ministers at the moment as well. Thirty-five per cent of construction workers in London currently come from outside the UK, with the majority of them being EU workers.

Let me highlight another two benefits that the companies involved did not particularly draw to our attention. The first is the reduction in construction waste. When I was chief executive of the Environment Agency, I was appalled that 30% of construction materials delivered on to conventional sites left as waste without ever being used. That was not a great contribution to productivity or the circular economy. The second benefit concerns health and safety. It is estimated that off-site construction could reduce work-related health and safety impacts by 80%.

The Government’s response to our report was pretty positive. It is encouraging to see how a range of investment and other measures are being put in place to help bring about this construction revolution. That seems to be envisaged in the construction sector deal and I urge the Construction Leadership Council, in leading that deal, to see this as a medium to long-term effort, not a quick fix.

The then co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council, Andrew Wolstenholme, gave evidence and was exceptionally visionary in this respect. He described the fundamental change in culture and approach that needs to be achieved in the sector and outlined a comprehensive road map for doing that. I have rarely been so impressed by the clarity of thought in how to achieve sustained change in a major sector and it bears re-reading by everyone involved in change programmes of any kind. I commend it to the Minister.

There have been previous spurts in the off-site construction market, the last of which stalled with the recession in 2008. Governments are not particularly good at keeping a consistent course over a number of years longer than the electoral cycle—though one can ponder at the moment on how long the electoral cycle is—so the role of the Construction Leadership Council is fundamental in keeping the implementation and change effort going until the job is done. Will the Minister comment on the need for sustained long-term leadership and ongoing support for the Construction Leadership Council?

The Government have some key roles, and I welcome the scale and range of initiatives and investments that they have outlined in their response to our report and subsequently. The Government have a unique opportunity in driving this through the presumption in favour of off-site construction, but they need, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, to monitor that presumption, and compliance with it, and not to take no for an answer. Ultimately, I would like the scope of the presumption in favour of off-site construction to be expanded to all government departments and public authorities. Will the Minister comment on that too? The Government also need, through Homes England, to influence the procurement of off-site construction by housing associations and local authorities.

Of great importance are measures to ensure the pipeline of projects so that the security of supply can be assured and confidence promoted in the investment market and among planners. Management of the development of the market is important. The risk of success is that the market might overheat and outrun manufacturing capacity, resulting in disruption in delivery and extension of lead times. This would significantly adversely influence clients, architects, design engineers and contractors just at the time when we need them all to be enthusiastic adopters of off-site construction thinking.

On the labour and skills market challenge, I commend the work on apprenticeships and T-levels. Of particular importance will be the retraining of the existing workforce. The skills required are significantly different from those currently deployed, with scarce digital skills particularly important and, potentially, in the future, in short supply and great demand. I have discussed the construction workforce position with my 80 year-old brickie, who told me firmly that there will always be a requirement for his skills as long as brick-built houses still stand up. He is not thinking of retiring yet. However, the transition is not a simple one and a mix of new and traditional skills will be required for as long as our existing building stock endures.

Let me end with one last opportunity that off-site construction can offer. This was the point at which my interest declaration as chairman of the Woodland Trust becomes material. Part of the construction industry already recognises the value of wood in off-site construction. For example, Legal & General and Swan Housing Association have both invested in factories for off-site construction using cross-laminated timber. CLT can be used for a variety of housing projects, from terraced homes to apartment blocks. Wood as a building material has many virtues, including fine aesthetic qualities and its sustainable nature, but by far the biggest driver needs to be its role as carbon store in combatting climate change.

In its most recent report, the International Panel on Climate Change has sombrely shown that we have only 12 years, if we are to keep the global average temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees. Society must move away from fossil fuels completely, but must also undo some of the damage already done. One of the ways of doing this on a large scale is to plant more trees. Planting a tree locks in carbon and reduces CO2 in the atmosphere. If that tree is then felled and processed 40, 60 or 70 years later and embodied in a building for a further 100 years, its carbon reduction impact is extended mightily.

The UK Committee on Climate Change called for a 9% increase in tree cover in this country. The Government gave a manifesto commitment to plant 11 million trees in the lifetime of this Parliament—though who knows what that will be. The climate change committee has clearly laid out that meeting that commitment would require planting 74 million trees a year, not 11 million trees over five years. I look forward to debating this with the Government as part of the forthcoming consultation on the England tree strategy. I commend the virtues of wood to the off-site construction market, both intrinsically as a material and for its undoubted contribution to climate change reduction. I hope our architects, designers, construction companies and housebuilders will “embrace their inner tree”, benefit from using more wood in off-site construction and help drive the planting of more trees. I hope the Minister will support my call.