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My Lords, I too compliment the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the Science and Technology Select Committee on their report. It clearly describes the benefits of off-site manufacture and the degree to which it has been adopted by our construction industry. It goes on to make comprehensive and sensible recommendations about how we might make greater use of off-site manufacturing, all of which I strongly support.
I was pleased and not surprised to find from the report that we are internationally competitive in the high-rise sector of construction and I was disappointed, but again not surprised, that we lag behind in the low-rise residential sector, although there are signs of improvement. Paragraph 58 quotes Ann Bentley of Rider Levett Bucknall as saying that in the low-rise residential sector we were,
“substantially behind Scandinavia, North America and Japan”.
That is my experience. This field of engineering is far from my own as I am a microelectronics engineer, but I have followed it with interest because of its potential for improving the quality, speed and cost of construction. I was not surprised that we were leaders in the high-rise sector, as in general we have a high reputation internationally for large construction projects. In the low-rise residential sector, our building techniques have seemed slow and old-fashioned compared with what I experienced in the USA many years ago.
I lived in the USA from 1965 until 1984. In 1974, I designed a weekend home in Jamestown, Rhode Island, using templates provided by a company specialising in what were called modular homes. I did not carry out a detailed architectural design, of course, but I was able to determine the size, shape and layout of the rooms, provided they were rectangular, and the height of the ceilings and whether they were sloping or horizontal, and could determine where the appliances and bathroom fittings were. A few weeks later, a large truck with a team of four or five construction workers arrived, and within two days the house appeared, complete with its roof. Within another couple of days, the windows, doors and roof shingles were in place. All the wall units, doors, windows, roof trusses and flooring had been precisely manufactured in a factory. Of course, the foundation had to be completed beforehand and the finishing of the house inside took a local builder several months. This was 44 years ago, and the house remains in good order and has required almost no maintenance. I was not a pioneer in doing this, as my friends in the US had told me even back then that this was the way to proceed if I did not want a fully custom-designed house. Modular homes had a reputation for being lower cost, stronger and of higher quality. So it appears we have been behind for quite a long time.
The lack of adoption of off-site manufacturing seems to be the result of the fragmentation of the UK construction industry, as mentioned by many speakers, and the separation of design and engineering. This separation has damaged all branches of engineering but is especially serious in the construction industry. It appears that oversight of the construction industry is spread over a number of government departments, including BEIS, the Department for Transport and the Treasury. The Building Research Establishment has reportedly characterised the number of public sector bodies with an interest in construction as “a completely fragmented mess”.
As outlined so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Mair, there is hope that the new sector deal for manufacturing may help sort out this mess. Let us hope so. It may also ensure that the skills we need to innovate in the application of off-site manufacturing are available—this was also mentioned by many other speakers.
I emphasise that there are many other areas where off-site manufacturing is important and the safest and most environmentally friendly way to proceed. I am thinking in particular about small modular nuclear reactors—a pet subject of mine—which we have discussed a great deal over the last few years but on which the Government have regrettably been unable to make up their mind. It should be possible to build these reactors off-site, thereby ensuring quality and reducing cost. The Minister, answering an Oral Question on nuclear power from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, mentioned on Monday that the nuclear sector deal outlines a new framework designed to encourage industry to bring viable small-reactor propositions to the marketplace. I ask the Minister whether there is a timetable for evaluating these propositions. The Government’s procrastination on this matter has already seriously eroded any lead we might have had with these reactors through Rolls-Royce’s experience with them in Trident submarines. It is important that we proceed as soon as we can to actually build an SMR and realise the benefit that they may be manufactured off-site.