Residential Construction and Housing Supply - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:11 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Crossbench 9:11 pm, 24th April 2019

I thank the Minister for bringing this debate relating to modern methods of construction, with a particular focus on housing. I declare my interests as outlined in the register, in particular my role as senior independent director at Southern Housing.

I am indebted to several briefings provided to me in preparation for my contribution. A former colleague, Stephen Trusler from Laing O’Rourke, provided me with information that commences with the following statement:

“Platform-Design for Manufacture and Assembly offers the opportunity to ‘TURBO-CHARGE’ capacity and widen productivity in the UK and will enable the UK’s construction sector to deliver modern solutions to the challenges the country now faces”.

The paper argues that there is an opportunity to improve sustainability through accurate, cost-efficient and time-efficient build; deliver high-quality, energy-efficient products; minimise risks of additional costs due to accuracy and quality of build; and improve productivity through high-tech design, delivering products less reliant on traditional on-site construction works. In current parlance, I ask noble Lords: what is not to like if all these benefits can be achieved?

Gwent’s new £350 million Grange University Hospital is being delivered by design for manufacture and assembly. The hospital team defined a set of 4,000 construction products, which were digitally engineered and tested off-site. If this 560-bed hospital can be delivered through modern practices of assembly using lean automation and quality-assurance systems, estimated to take only four years to complete, imagine what could be achieved in the residential housing sector.

Modern methods of construction should be a welcome approach to speeding up our housing supply, including modular units for homeless people living rough or in bed and breakfasts. To really embrace these modern methods, it will be necessary for the housebuilding industry to invest significantly in the changes needed to deliver innovation in construction techniques.

It is accepted that our housing market has been broken because we have not produced enough homes to keep up not only with population growth but with our changing demographics. Recent research showed that there are at least 1.8 million households that require access features or adaptations to their homes to live as independently as possible. It should surely be feasible to design homes through the new modern methods of construction that can be readily adapted as and when necessary.

I was going to talk about Lifetime Homes Standard category 2, but as this has been covered by other noble Lords I will say merely that if we accept the costs as outlined in the Government’s own impact assessment, building a category 2 home would cost just over £521 more in bill costs—with the net additional cost of space possibly making this rise to £1,400. An investment in such a unit, using a simple automated design process, would not only be economic but would dramatically enhance people’s lives, enabling faster discharge from healthcare facilities and early rehabilitation in people's own homes, as well as often keeping them out of care facilities.

I have barely touched on many of the issues provided in the excellent Library briefing, which clearly indicates that the residential construction industry could significantly boost housing supply using modern methods of construction. Yet industry requires assurances from the Government to invest in new facilities to produce the product and manufacturing tools that will allow accurate, repeatable, machine-readable product information to be used across the sector.

It will be necessary to develop industry-wide standards for the products produced by these new methods, and to include those standards associated with health and safety—particularly fire and flood regulations. Equally vital is the action needed to develop structured career pathways into and within the sector, including high-quality industry placements for students in school, further education and higher education. The current sector workforce will also need to be reskilled where appropriate, to support their ongoing employment and to ensure their retention in the construction industry.

In summary, I ask the Minister: will the Government support industry in its investment programmes, to ensure that the target for increasing the number of new homes can be achieved more quickly using modern processes than through traditional construction methods? I have spoken to many people in the industry who reaffirm evidence given to the Science and Technology Select Committee that the only way to meet the new government targets for delivering 300,000 additional homes per annum by the mid-2020s will be by embracing these new technologies.

Will the Government also commit to exploring options for the specifications and accreditation of products built off-site, in part to ensure that mortgages and insurance policies are readily available for purchasers and renters of these new housing products?