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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 5:09 pm on 12th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:09 pm, 12th December 2018

My Lords, this has been an extensive debate and for that we should thank the support team that helped draw up the report, and the characteristic leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Mair, but I think we missed a trick. Clearly we should have co-opted the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friend Lord Stunell on to the committee before we wrote the report. As their contributions have shown, they have a lot to add to the debate.

It may come as a surprise to your Lordships but I was trusted with the task of talking to the media when we launched this report. I had low expectations of interest, which was completely wrong—there was huge interest among the building media and trade. While I was giving those briefings, the noble Lord, Lord Mair, was hosting a reception at the Institution of Civil Engineers, and there was a fantastic turnout from across the industry. It is clear that there is a strong energy around this issue. And no wonder.

The sector deal says that we have to double capacity to meet the infrastructure and housing needs for the country and, as others have said, that we are already lagging behind in productivity. At the same time, we face a labour shortage, with an ageing population and people leaving the industry due to the Brexit drain. Clearly, energy is focused on this area because off-site manufacturing holds the prospect of increasing productivity, reducing or changing labour demands, improving the quality and efficiency of buildings, and removing some of the environmental impacts. So, all other things being equal, why are we not doing it? That is the question we are debating today.

There are barriers. As the chairman and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, said, the take-up is limited. At the heart of this are the commercial relationships within the industry itself. With architects, clients, designers, contractors, subcontractors, and subcontractors to the subcontractors, it is an extraordinarily fragmented industry, and one that has survived with that fragmented nature for a very long time. To change the way we build we have to change the culture of the industry. But this is an industry that has resisted cultural change better than most, and so it is no mean challenge. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, pointed to one way that this might happen: money. If the prospect of profitability is dangled, perhaps it will encourage change.

As a number of noble Lords mentioned, there is a huge skills deficit, and it is only going to get worse. At the same time, the image of the industry remains one of dirt, muck, difficulty and very male. Through off-site manufacturing there is a great opportunity to create another, digital world for the future employees in this industry. That will attract people from different areas of the community, with different sorts of brains, and of course women and those from underrepresented communities. That will itself change the culture, because currently, its people are monocultural.

At the heart of this is the Government’s commitment to the presumption of off-site manufacturing through the sector deal, which we welcome. However, as was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mair, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, what does that mean? We need to understand what it will mean in practice. Will the Government go along with the report and publish key performance indicators and score performance against those? What will happen if the presumption of using OSM is not met? How will the reasons for not manufacturing off site be reported? We recommended that the Government, through Homes England, should put pressure on housing associations and local authorities to also have that presumption. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us a little more about that. There is an answer in the response but it seems relatively lukewarm.

There are a couple of other minor matters relating to the report. I will not comment on the small modular reactors, but the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, introduced the issue of planning, which was not covered. I beg to disagree with his wisdom. There are, of course, planning issues, but his argument would hold much more water if the main developers were not sitting on such huge land banks. That discredits that argument. If they were not more interested in building higher-priced houses close to green belts rather than on brownfield land, it might be more convincing. There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that they control supply in order to control the price. So planning is an issue, but that argument does not work when we look at what the major housebuilders are actually doing.

That is why the Government—or at least, the public sector—as a housebuilder will be the driving force to deliver the 300,000 houses that the Government have set themselves as a target. That will not be achieved through private sector builders alone. The Government have a role but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, rightly said, local authorities and housing associations will become extremely important. I hope that more local authorities will be driving the public sector housing agenda, and we need to know that the Government will be working with those organisations to promote that agenda. If the Minister would let us know what conversations Her Majesty’s Government are having with housing associations and local authorities on this issue, that would be enormously helpful.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on the issue of cash and cash flow. The Government do, in part, respond to our point on that. They mention the British Business Bank, and say that they will work with it. Well, I work with my noble friend Lord Stunell, but he does not necessarily do what I want him to do. What does “work with” mean? What will the Government instruct, or ask, the British Business Bank to do, and how will they help to make sure that it does it?

Several speakers, not least the noble Lord, Lord Mair, and my noble friend Lord Stunell, talked about the quality of build and the through-life of buildings—the whole life approach. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, also spoke about that. The whole life approach is central to the benefit that can be derived from off-site manufacture.

One issue that has not been raised is the response to the Hackitt review. As well as the environmental performance, the safety performance of multioccupied housing is central to the Hackitt recommendations. Part of the idea is to treat a multioccupancy building as a system, which can happen when it is handed over to the tenants and the owners only if it is built as a system in the first place. Building a building as a system is much easier using the sort of techniques that we talk about in the report. Not only can environmental performance be enhanced, but the safety performance of buildings can be assured through this approach. The delivery of what I think we all agree is a beneficial way of doing things is at the heart of this, and it involves many different actors. It involves government, and it is important for government not just to say the words but to demonstrate, through how it measures and how it enforces some of its measurement, what is going on.

It is important for the industry to work together, and the role of the leadership council has been mentioned several times. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister how the Government, who are part of the leadership council, will support that council. It has a big job to do here, and this is not its only job; it has a number of other things to do. I have worked in leadership councils for other industries, and it is a tough job to bring any industry together—but to bring this one together is even tougher. What are the Government going to do to help the leadership council deliver what it needs to deliver? Relationships will have to change, and they will do that only if people want to change. How are the Government going to help people to want to change?