Residential Construction and Housing Supply - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 7:56 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, “sustainability” is used freely but it is not often well defined. However, I am absolutely convinced that one thing in this country is not sustainable: land. They do not make land anymore. You cannot renew it. There is only so much of it and anyone building anywhere has an awful—I choose that word carefully—responsibility to make sure that what is built is acceptable. I say that in declaring my registered interests in two housebuilding companies and an insurance company that, happily, has gone into building off-site homes.

I will address two key issues: the importance of making new houses look good and feel good in good surroundings, and encouraging new building methods if, and only if, they contribute to better building. That still has to be proved; there is a lot of enthusiasm as if this is magically going to change stuff. We must see what these houses look like first because most of them are not in place yet. Once they are, they will of course be irrevocably using the land we cannot renew. I am agnostic; I am not against these new methods. One of the best ways of boosting housing supply—I wish that more building companies would grasp this point—is to make new homes look good, be more acceptable on the landscape in communities and outlive their predicted lifespan, which many quite small houses and terraces have managed to do over hundreds of years in some cases.

The definition of sustainable is “changeless”. Well, we certainly need change in many parts of the housebuilding industry to create places as much as houses and beauty as well as bedrooms for the hard-working people who will live in them. That should be our central concern. I do not want to get involved in great debates about beauty in housebuilding and construction, which causes much anger and wrist flapping. I am perfectly happy to see modernist houses built by people who want to build them if they can afford to and statements made by architects who want to make them. I am just as happy to see people build backward-looking houses that go back into the depths of time, using styles such as neoclassical and Georgian, if they can afford to do so. I am much more concerned about decent homes that look and feel good for ordinary people.

People certainly deserve much better places than the site in southern England I have been monitoring in recent years; I will not mention where it is, let alone its name or that of the mass housebuilder building there, for fear of making its resale problems even greater. Out of sight and out of mind from our own property though it is, it has only just been finished after many years. It has taken a long time to finish the selling of these houses. Extraordinarily enough—this is a little moral tale—the very first show house it built, with many trumpets blown, developed cracks down the side shortly after it was completed and had to be repainted. People have indeed suffered.

This is the reverse of the Government’s hope that building better and beautifully will build more homes. I do not think that many people on the boards of big housing companies ever live in the mass estates that they have built; I can find no address of any director of any major housebuilding company who lives on a large housing estate that their company has constructed. They generally live elsewhere, safely in the countryside, a long way away. I wish that many board directors would spend at least a sojourn in their own product. Generally, I do not think they do and that is shaming. I am an investor in a couple of these companies; my warning is that I like to be a smart investor and get good value for money. Well-built houses mean better profitability and that the value of my shareholding will go up. That is all I want these people to do—not build the sort of houses that do not appeal to ordinary people.

That brings me to the second issue. I welcome these brand new houses that we are seeing built off-site. They are precision built and tailored to a new world where they will be put on-site. It is very good to see factories doing this. There is the TopHat factory in Derbyshire, which is being invested in by Goldman Sachs. Builders are normally lucky to have a big bank following them so that is very good. Equally, the money managers and insurance company Legal & General, in which I also have an interest, has a new housebuilding factory at Sherburn in Elmet near Leeds, which will produce 3,000 units a year. However, we have not yet seen any of these things on-site. We do not know what they will look like. The marketing stuff is full of precision engineering, sustainability, looking after heating loss and other issues, but we have not seen a unit on-site.

For a builder, rather than being outside all year round in all weathers—like today’s weather in certain parts of the country—and very difficult circumstances, it is much nicer to be inside a factory. It is a much safer environment and we might even get better productivity by producing houses in that way, which I am thoroughly in favour of. We could also build up apprenticeships in the right way. I do not believe, however, that we have yet proven that energy efficiency and sustainability—another word they love—are magic solutions.

On that point about sustainability I shall end. I do not think my noble friend the Minister used the word in his speech—he may have done and I am sure he will correct me later if I am wrong, although it is used in the Motion—but I have never seen a proper government definition of sustainability in housebuilding. I ask him to define what the Government mean by sustainability in relation to new houses being built, if not in his wind-up speech then certainly in any letter he circulates later. I see him enthusiastically nodding his head in acquiescence to my request.