Residential Construction and Housing Supply - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:25 pm on 24th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 9:25 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to contribute to this timely debate. I welcome the words of the Minister in introducing it and in giving us a good overview of what the Government intend to do. There have been some high-powered contributions to the debate and perhaps two key themes have come out of it. One is how we get the quantity of homes that we need and the other is how we get the quality. My noble friend Lady Thornhill made the pertinent point that if we want the quantity, we will have to invest more in social housing, which will deliver other benefits—social sustainability as well as the numbers. Some powerful points were made by a number of other noble Members of this Chamber, but I am sure that we were all impressed by the contributions made particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, on accessibility, which is one more aspect of how we make homes sustainable.

I want to pick up a point introduced by my noble friend Lady Walmsley, about housing sustainability and climate change. It is a good moment to do so, with the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations this week and Greta Thunberg in the building challenging Members of Parliament. I hope that in his final words the Minister might rise above the departmental brief to say exactly how he sees MMC and the construction industry responding to the challenges set by Extinction Rebellion and the Government’s own target of an 80% reduction in carbon output by 2050, which they have now admitted is hardly within sight.

The reality is that 30% of the carbon emissions of this country come from construction and the built environment. Our homes produce twice as much carbon dioxide as our cars, yet we have the paradox whereby if you want to buy a zero-emission car, the Government will give you a £3,000 subsidy whereas if you want a zero-carbon house they will charge you 17.5% tax on the extra cost. When looking at how we tackle quality, perhaps the Minister could respond on that. If we halved domestic CO2 output, we could reduce the programme of power generation by the equivalent of three nuclear power stations—which would be very convenient given that it seems that they are reducing anyway.

What the Government have done so far is scrap the Green Deal and abandon the shift to zero-carbon homes. They have even left energy performance certificates to go completely unmonitored and rot on the vine. A response to a recent Parliamentary Question that I asked indicated that we do not even know what the energy performance of government buildings is; nor is there any system of recording or monitoring it. So there is plenty to be done.

The Minister will have read about Greta Thunberg’s accusation that British politicians have lied about climate change. I know that the Minister would never do that, and I hope that when he winds up the debate he will set out a bold vision of how we will use the construction boom, delivered through the commitment to build 300,000 homes a year, to move towards solving the problems of climate change.

Other noble Lords have pointed out that MMC is not an end but a means: it is a means to higher productivity, which is very much needed; it is a means of getting greater workforce diversity—not just women in the factories making the houses, but diversity of design and performance; it is a means of getting faster delivery of homes; and it is a means of getting more consistent quality of homes. Contributors to this debate have also pointed out that MMC has some problems. An important one is its reputation. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in particular, mentioned that, as did others. The Minister mentioned in his opening remarks discussions with the mortgage industry, the insurance industry and the financial sector about how they can rally round to give proper support; I hope he will be able to expand on that. I certainly look forward to seeing how it will happen.

However, the overwhelming problem for MMC is the inconsistency of financial support. The fact that there is no consistent timeline and programme for production means that the high first costs of MMC are a ridiculously high risk for many investors to take. I welcome what the Government have done with the construction industry strategy in setting aside money and seeing investment, but the noble Lord, Lord Patten, made the point that while he is supporting an enterprise that is building 2,000 homes in a factory, not one is yet on the ground. That is not a criticism—it takes time to get an off-site manufacturing system to a level where it can put houses on site consistently, and the history of policy in this country is that by the time you are ready to put the houses on the ground, the policy has changed at national level and very often you are left stranded.

So the Minister has made a bold and interesting start. He has talked some good talk but he has left unanswered some of the really big questions asked by other contributors to this debate and, I hope, by me. What is he going to do to give the construction industry and the housebuilding sector a long-term target, with a trajectory and timelines to deliver on climate change? What is going to be put in place to respond to the Extinction Rebellion protesters?