My Lords, I declare my interest as a property professional and vice-president of the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils. I certainly welcome this debate and the introduction given by the Minister. After all, decent housing, along with education, health and access to justice, is something of a post-war birthright that we should respect.
Report after report, certainly since the beginning of 2016, has identified shortcomings in the construction and housebuilding sectors. I do not want to dwell too much on those, but traditional construction is certainly likely to be with us for some time, not least because we already have over 20 million houses that are built largely on traditional lines.
The sector is dominated by a few large players, and of course that has prompted suggestions of monopolistic characteristics. However, exploitative behaviour has been evident right across the sector, not just in directors’ bonuses bolstered by Help to Buy. Housing delivery remains complex, adversarial, long-winded, costly and uncertain. Unsurprisingly, that gives rise to sub-optimal outcomes, dissatisfied communities, poorly designed environments and disgracefully low-quality homes in some areas, and a range of complaints about defects in many more that are supposed to be good quality. Slow build rates, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and large allocation sites often dictate local supply and local pricing for years.
But there are well-designed housing developments and virtually fault-free homes in settings that give general satisfaction. It does not require new towns with long bedding-in timeframes or amorphous strategic sites, but rather, smaller, discrete adjuncts to settlements where people want to live and work and where there is some sense of community that best suits work/life balance, and environmental and green travel options. Lifetime homes, acceptable environments, low-maintenance design and robust technology should sit with adequate space standards in settings that are attractive, and I hope provided by a raft of small and medium-sized housebuilders who do not just produce standardised layouts.
There is nothing wrong with modular construction, as anyone who has inspected a Colt timber-framed house of the 1930s can attest. But modern ones are not as tolerant of DIY alterations or abuse, nor are they as easy to alter. So if that matters to people and what they expect of their homes, then rethink the design. There are problems with overprescriptive design when it comes to dealing with very high technological outcomes. Ours is a high-humidity island, and it may take many years for a problem with, for example, vapour barriers or the way components interact with each other to show up. So real-life testing of designs must, in my opinion, be absolutely exhaustive if we are to get lots of good life cycles.
More widely, we could certainly do more to decarbonise and harness renewable energy. On decarbonisation, using timber instead of cement and concrete is what I would be thinking of. Instead of having to change not just the bulb but the entire fitting and the housing—to use the old light fitting analogy—we need buildings, modern or otherwise, that last for decades and are extensively repairable and serviceable. Designing in potential for reuse and recycling, as well as durability, and reducing obsolescence, means a degree of harmonisation. Those factors, along with resilience to known risks caused by weathering and other deterioration, would serve to enhance homeowner and lender confidence. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no justification for sub-standard housing converted from unsuitable commercial buildings.
We have to address industry shortcomings. They were addressed in the Farmer report so I will not repeat them here, but there is a fragmentation of skills, an ageing workforce and a loss of experienced manpower—never mind things such as gender imbalance. I hope that modern apprenticeships will recognise that not every plumber, carpenter or electrician needs to have a higher education or, for that matter, is suited to academic endeavour.
Good design and durable outcomes also need competent professional skills, and we will need to refocus what we do to deal not only with traditional construction but with new forms. At present, we are cutting corners. The Building Research Establishment’s finding of poor thermal efficiency in many modern homes is something I still encounter in new housing today. Local government and housing associations should build more social housing. It will take time to create volume, though perhaps modular construction can help in that respect.
I agree with the Local Government Association that retaining right-to-buy receipts is essential. I despaired of the unfulfilled commitment in the Thatcher years to use receipts to build more social housing—only for a Labour Government in 2002 to pocket the accumulated fund for other purposes.
Ethical behaviour and corporate social responsibility must form part of what we do, and that means starting at the top. Nowhere is abusive behaviour better illustrated than in some modern ground rent practices, referred to earlier, and in poor construction quality. One change might be to attach some sort of more direct liability to house purchasers for the products that are produced or, for that matter, to social landlords who acquire blocks, so that it cannot be a question of hiding behind a construction warranty provided by somebody else. That might take things somewhat further than the new home ombudsman idea advocated so ably by my noble friend Lord Best, but it is worth thinking about.