[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Prefabricated Housing

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 4th November 2015.

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Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 9:30 am, 4th November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered modern prefabricated housing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in a Westminster Hall debate, Mr Owen. I thank colleagues who are present this morning to consider this important subject. I chose to use the word “prefabricated” in the motion because I thought that would give Members the clearest steer on the subject matter, although the housing industry’s preferred terminology is “off-site manufacturing”.

For many of us, prefabrication conjures up images of the immediate post-war era, when it was one of the solutions to the country’s incredible housing need, but things have moved on a lot in the prefabricated market. Modern methods of off-site construction and manufacture and on-site assembly have transformed the use of the technology and its application in modern housing. People may have seen modern retail parks such as BOXPARK in Shoreditch, east London, which was assembled from box units and can be disassembled and moved away, and wondered whether such methods are possible in housing and an answer to the our dire housing needs. I believe that they could be. The purpose of today’s debate is to explore that and to ask the Government what opportunities exist to incentivise and encourage the development of the technology.

There is no doubt that housing need in this country is great. The record modern high for house building completions was set in 1988. It is now estimated that 230,000 new accommodation units a year are needed. In the past few years, the Government have introduced incentives and simplified the planning system and announced schemes such as Help to Buy to help more people on to the housing ladder, but despite the success of such programmes and the welcome increase in the number of housing starts and completions, the number of completions is still running at around 130,000 a year—considerably less than the target. In many ways, that is a moving target. It would be nice to have the luxury of believing that if we could just catch up with the lost years of house building during the recession, we would be in much better place, but while that would be progress, the number of new households created each year is rising faster than we can build homes to accommodate them. That is what is creating the massive pinch in the housing market.

The problem is principally one of supply—the lack of homes to buy and of affordable homes to rent. In previous debates, we have discussed rogue landlords and problems in the private rented sector, and I was pleased to see the measures that the Government are introducing in the new Housing and Planning Bill to give councils more powers to combat rogue landlords.

One of the reasons why rogue landlords exist is the lack of supply of good-quality properties in the private rented sector at affordable prices. Rogue landlords can get away with exploiting their tenants because the tenants often have few options of other places to live. More and much higher quality housing at the lower end of the market is essential.

I said that prefabrication often conjures up images of the post-war era. The building industry has evolved considerably since then, so we should not seek to copy that era’s techniques and methods, but we should certainly consider the ambition. When Winston Churchill famously gave Harold Macmillan the task of building 300,000 new homes, there were the added complexities of post-war austerity and a simple lack of timber with which to build homes. Rather than putting up their hands and saying, “We don’t have enough wood to build the homes we need,” they harnessed the ingenuity of British engineering and design to come up with different techniques and methods of building homes. Famously, they designed the timberless house, which required very little wood to support its construction. With those new ideas and methods, they were able to meet their targets. We should similarly be looking at the new ideas and methods in prefabricated housing to unleash a revolution in the design and delivery of new homes for Britain to meet the Government’s targets and the people’s need.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. He is right that prefabrication has moved on tremendously over the years. Does he agree that we should consider prefabrication not only in housing, but in schools and hospitals? Portakabin in my constituency has just signed a deal to provide a huge school project worth £44 million and is moving the technology further on every year.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When thinking of portakabins, some of us may think of the rather inadequate buildings that we inhabited at school in the 1980s, but things have moved on a lot. We are looking at modern, fully furbished, fully functioning units that can be designed for almost any need and assembled quickly in any place to do any type of job. As my hon. Friend said, be it for schools, offices or accommodation, the units have many uses and can be delivered to an exceptionally high quality and specification. It is that sort of technology and approach that we want in the housing market.

I recently met the architectural practice Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners because I wanted to find out more about the Y:Cube project that it recently delivered in Morden, south London, which I know the Housing Minister has visited. The project involves specially designed pods that are manufactured off-site. The build cost for a one-bedroom studio flat in the development could be as little as £30,000 to £35,000, and they can be rented out from £150 a week. The units can be built in the factory in a week and assembled on-site in a further week. A whole project—not just a single unit—can be delivered in about a third of the time of a traditional development. The practice believes that it can deliver a block of 50 accommodation units in less than 11 months from the moment that a planning application is presented to the council to tenants actually living in the building, which is a radical change in the time it takes to deliver a project of such complexity.

Referring back to my hon. Friend’s intervention, the modern technology used in the design of modern prefabricated units means that they are cheap to run. Energy bills can be as little as £10 a month—much cheaper than in many of the properties in the private rented sector. The construction price is also low—it could be a third less than that of even the most affordable housing units currently being built. Prefabrication totally changes the economy of the housing market for both developers and tenants. It provides an opportunity for much lower rents and prices, based not on subsidy but on the fact that the property itself is much cheaper to construct using modern methods.

The value of a property is based not only on the materials and labour used to construct it, but on the value of the land on which it sits. The Government could consider whether their land assets could be made available to support the use and development of modern off-site constructed housing. Smaller plots of land, which are often uneconomic to develop and not of interest to house builders, could be used. We have a crisis in housing supply, but not necessarily among house builders, which have many projects to work on. The economies of scale that they get from delivering a large housing estate of thousands of properties cannot be derived from a relatively small piece of land that might be owned by a local authority or a public body such as Transport for London, where perhaps only a few flats could be delivered. New methods of off-site construction make such developments much more viable. Units can be constructed off-site and assembled on-site quickly with little disturbance to local residents.

One of the biggest challenges for the construction industry is waste, but there is virtually no waste with off-site construction and on-site assembly. Furthermore, when land already owned by local authorities and public bodies or land with little commercial value because of its location and restricted size is used, methods of off-site construction come into their own. When local authorities compile a register of brownfield sites under the new Housing and Planning Bill, perhaps the Minister will ask them to include a schedule of sites suitable for off-site construction housing projects—suitable because of the land’s limited commercial potential and value, and restricted size.

Off-site construction homes also come into their own for companies that are as yet uncertain about what the best value use of their land holdings will be. Some land might be developed for commercial or residential purposes but is not being utilised at the moment, and some of us get frustrated at land being held in land banks as an asset, and not released to meet its full potential because of market circumstances. The great thing about off-site construction and on-site assembly is that homes can be removed and reused in a different location. For example, a major developer with a big project to be delivered over 10 years or more might look at short-term delivery of housing units on a site—low-cost units to rent that could be moved on later. The Government—particularly the Ministry of Defence—have land assets, but they might be reluctant to sell to a commercial developer, or not want to release too much land in one go, thereby devaluing their assets, so they might look at whether some of their sites could be used for the deployment of prefabricated housing as an interim measure.

The technology is such that the units are advanced, well designed, well insulated and durable. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners told me that the units in the Y:Cube project they worked on met all modern building specifications and would have a life of 60 years or more, so they could be delivered not only for low-cost rented housing, but to purchase at low cost. The units are mortgageable, because of their 60-year life.

There is massive potential for such construction and I want local authorities and the Government to look at their available assets for sites that could support the development of the technology. They should also look at the roll-out of the factory units to construct the properties, because new factory jobs can be spread around the country so that the houses are built in factories close to where they will be deployed. That might be a useful tool for economic regeneration in areas where that is needed.

The project in Merton, south London, will followed by others in Lewisham and elsewhere in the city. The technology suits the London market in particular, where the gap between people’s average earnings and the average property price is so wide that property ownership is out of reach to many people. That has also pushed rents up. Those challenges are faced throughout the south-east and, in many ways, throughout the country. Prefabrication could be a solution to rebalance the market not through subsidy, but through the development of new technology to offer new choice and lower prices.

I look forward to what the Minister will say about such opportunities. The scheme that I outlined is by no means the only one—Urban Splash has a project in New Islington, in Manchester, in which people can in effect pre-order and pre-design their home before it has been constructed. It will be manufactured off-site and then assembled on-site to their exact specification. Again that can be done for less cost than might normally be the case in the construction sector, certainly where that level of purchaser design is part of the end product. Other companies are also looking at similar schemes. We could be on the verge of an exciting new technology, which could revolutionise the design and delivery of homes in this country. I will welcome the Minister’s views.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun 9:44 am, 4th November 2015

It is a pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in a Westminster Hall debate.

I thank Damian Collins for securing the debate. I agreed with a lot of what he said, so there is a risk that he will think that I have cribbed his speech. The debate is timely given that earlier in the week we had Second Reading of the Housing and Planning Bill in the House. We discussed the right to buy in social housing, which I spoke against for various reasons. One thing that was agreed, however, given the right to buy, was the need for replacement housing to be put back into circulation. Obviously, as has been said, prefabricated housing or off-site construction is one way to speed up that process cost-effectively.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the term “prefabricated housing” takes us back to the image of post-war housing. Although those prefabricated houses are now somewhat maligned, I agree that we have to compliment the ingenuity of the time. The houses served a real need, providing housing on site quickly when there was a shortage of raw materials. Also, the people who stayed in those prefabricated homes in general loved living in them, and some remain today, which is a testament to how well the houses were built, although in energy efficiency they no longer serve modern purposes. When I was a councillor with responsibility for housing, adapting that older prefabricated housing to energy-efficient standards was a real challenge, if not impossible. It is therefore good to revisit the prefabricated home with modern technologies for the new house build.

Over the years in Scotland, especially in the private housing sector, there has been a switch to kit houses, with much of the frame built off site for quick assembly on site, speeding up the whole building process. It makes sense that off-site construction has evolved further to provide complete wall panels, which come with insulation or even services included, and modular units.

In off-site construction, “modular units” is a more popular term than “prefabricated houses”, because it does not have quite the same connotation in the imagination. Modular units are now used for schools and offices, and we have heard about a retail development. No one looks at those units and thinks, “Oh, they were prefabricated”, or, “That’s off-site construction; it will only have a 10-year lifespan.” They look and feel permanent and have similar lifespans to traditional builds. It makes sense for modular units to be extended into the housing sector.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

The delivery of the London Olympic games was a triumph for UK design and architecture in many ways, and a prefabricated or off-site-constructed unit was used for the basketball arena. It was a temporary building that was constructed for the games, but could then be disassembled and relocated to other places around the country.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the successful delivery of the 2012 Olympics and prefabrication helping to control budgets.

It might surprise the House to know that Scotland is ahead of the curve with off-site construction and prefabrication. In 2013 there was an estimated construction value of £125 million in Scotland, compared with only £46 million in the rest of the UK. That illustrates a stark difference. Also in 2013, it was estimated that 50% of new houses in Scotland had an off-site build element, which again is a much higher rate than in the rest of the UK. We also have a much higher new build rate in social housing and private housing, and the 50% rate clearly contributes to that. Scotland’s housing growth also means a potential increase in exports, creating new jobs and keeping traditional construction jobs on site. There has been a real fillip for the construction industry.

I agree that there is less waste on site when there is off-site construction, and vehicle movements to and from the site can be reduced by up to 40%. We should consider that housing developments often take place adjacent to existing houses, so that reduction in movements is great for reducing disruption to local residents. Of course, having fewer vehicles also brings a safety benefit.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I would also welcome the Minister’s thoughts on this—that we could consider off-site construction and assembly as having an advantage in the planning system, because there is less disruption to residents during the construction phase than with a normal build?

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

I agree. When I was a councillor I was also chair of planning, and I know that the number of vehicle movements drives a lot of objections from local residents. I was in committees where we debated planning conditions to control and limit the times of movements. If we had a system that much reduced vehicle movements in the first place, that could certainly speed up planning and take some of the heat out of those considerations.

Off-site construction clearly speeds up the construction process. The trick is to have utilities on site ready for assembly. Utilities are the one risk to construction programmes, but that risk exists in traditional build as well. I am sure we have all heard about problems with getting utility companies to stick to their programme and engage with developers. As we increase the number of off-site constructions, we need to ensure that the utility companies are up to speed and do not cause delays, because delays inevitably mean that people do not get into their new-build homes quick enough.

I have outlined the advantages of this type of construction, which has seen real growth in Scotland. I want to highlight a couple of specialist companies—it is no surprise that we already have such companies operating in Scotland. Rural House, based in Skye, does more robust prefabricated designs for the more inclement highland weather. Its houses are also aesthetically pleasing; they are designed to look like traditional steadings.

In my neck of the woods, but in a neighbouring constituency, there is the Wee House Company, which was started up by an entrepreneurial 22-year-old. It can produce one or two-bedroom models in three weeks, with costs that start at £68,000. In a debate the other day there was much discussion about what was deemed affordable housing, but it is clear that units that start at £68,000 fall in that bracket.

Off-site construction has a real future in the house building industry. To steal a quote, “Let’s not call it prefabrication.”

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 9:53 am, 4th November 2015

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen? I congratulate Damian Collins on introducing an interesting element to our housing debate.

This week we have rehearsed the point well that we are in the middle of a housing crisis. Last year’s output was only 117,000 homes, and we need about 245,000 a year, so anything that can help us to plug that huge gap in supply has to be looked at carefully, especially given the number of homes we are producing for social rent: we produced fewer than 11,000 last year—nowhere near enough. We should be delivering about 78,000 each year if we are to meet need. We should therefore look in some detail at providing what the hon. Gentleman rightly described as off-site housing, rather than prefab housing.

This is not an easy debate. The hon. Gentleman said that we do not come to this issue in a vacuum, because a number of us have experienced prefab housing built between the wars, and during and after the second world war—housing that had to be demolished in the 1970s and rebuilt. Results varied across the country. Some prefab estates lasted much longer than that, and many people who live in them really like them, but many of those houses were of insufficient quality to last and had to be demolished. We need to be careful to say that we are not talking about that sort of housing.

The Government’s off-site housing review report, commissioned in 2013, suggested that prefabricated construction methods could form part of the solution to England’s housing supply crisis. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing about that report, and whether they plan to incentivise the building of that housing in any way.

The report highlighted examples such as Y:Cube, a prefabricated home scheme developed by the YMCA in London that boasts self-contained, one-bedroom flats with their own bathroom, living room and kitchen—all in a compact unit of 26 square metres. Those homes are for vulnerable young people, and it is encouraging that they meet code level 6 energy requirements. A three-week test showed that each home could be lit and heated to 20° C all day and all night for £7 a week. That is really good in terms of energy costs, and the home has a lifespan of 60 years or more.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

That scheme, which was designed for vulnerable people, is very exciting. It also makes it possible for someone who lives in a house in multiple occupation to think about having a home of their own.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I absolutely agree. The task is to try to envisage a wider role for such specialist housing. I think that we can see that, but there is a real issue about how we can spread it more widely. I want to raise a couple of issues that need to be taken on board if it is to have much wider application.

Although the units in that scheme in south-west London had high energy efficiency and insulation specifications, that is not always the case. Some off-site housing still has poor insulation, or uses insulation materials that will not stand the test of time. That must be taken on board.

Points were made about off-site construction using less raw material. That might be the case in construction, because when houses are built in a factory to the same design, companies will create less waste. However, in transporting these units, a lot of wood and plastic is often used; those issues need to be taken on board.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

Surely when new houses are built, those materials are moved on to the site anyway, so movement is irrelevant.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I am listing things that need to be taken into consideration. It is as if we had a balance sheet and needed to see the evidence. That is the point—we need evidence, and we need to make sure that these issues are addressed. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said that he wanted a revolution. I am not suggesting for a minute that there is no role for this sort of construction, but before it becomes more widespread throughout the country and across different types of housing—before the revolution—we need to be sure that we are not building up problems with transport, or with more movement on and off site. We also need to ensure that people have the right skills to construct the units properly.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

One attractive thing about the schemes is that not only can we use a factory at a distance from the site, but pop-up factories can be built on site, to create the units where they will be deployed.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

That is a point well made. If apprenticeships can be attached to those factories, that will be helpful. We need people with the skills to construct the units.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. She is absolutely right that we need a skilled workforce to deliver the units. As I have mentioned, Portakabin employs nearly 2,000 people in my constituency. I have visited and looked at what that skilled workforce has delivered, and the results are huge. Portakabin is an exemplar for delivery in apprenticeship schemes as well. It is driving this sector forward, as are other companies across the country—there is a UK-based industry that can drive this construction forward.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

That is helpful. It would be good to hear more about what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and perhaps for some of us to see that work and talk to the company, so we can better understand the industry, how it is emerging and how it could be rolled out elsewhere.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

We should be careful not to associate a potential lack of construction skills solely with off-site prefabricated house building. Whatever type of house building is undertaken, the skills need to be there, and the sector has to be able to deliver the homes we need. The hon. Lady’s point is not necessarily pertinent only to what we are considering. Construction skills are generally transferable, anyway, as tradesmen can adapt to different styles of construction.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I agree with that. We need to develop skills right across the construction sector, as there is a skills shortage, but that is no reason not to consider that shortage with regard to off-site construction.

As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned, we also need land for the units. That factor needs to be considered, along with infrastructure. When thinking about a unit’s cost, it is easy to get carried away and think it is much cheaper than it actually is, because land has not been factored in. The cost of land varies around the country, but it can be very expensive indeed. Size is also an issue; many costs quoted are for small units. Although such units may suit some people in some sectors of the housing market, they will not suit everyone, and larger units tend to be much more expensive.

Finally, there is the issue of mortgage availability. If prefabricated units are to be rolled out more widely, they have to be of a construction type that will attract mortgages. They must be seen to have some longevity; the fact that the units appear to be short term seems to be what prevents mortgages from being given. We need to change the thinking about the units; I am simply highlighting the issues that we need to address.

I have looked at what is available on the market. It is good to hear from Julian Sturdy that Britain is leading the way on innovation in these products, because a lot of the information in the press is about companies abroad— especially American, Australian and German companies—that have developed units for use primarily in their own countries. We seem to rely quite heavily on German companies, so it would be good if we could get an exchange of knowledge going with German developers.

I will list some interesting examples. Topsider makes two-bedroom homes ranging from 60 square metres to 250 square metres, which can be built at a cost of between $60,000 and $350,000—that range is just huge. I emphasise my earlier point that these units are not necessarily cheap. In Germany, homes made by Baufritz are very expensive, as are some of the Australian-made ones, because they are high-end and use very good materials. They are a premium housing product, rather than a cheaper, more widely deliverable one.

I have talked a lot about issues that need to be addressed in rolling out such units, so lastly I will talk about some of the possibilities. We know that these types of homes can deliver impressive reductions in energy bills. They can also lead to faster construction and so a faster return on investment. Modular construction can reduce an overall completion schedule by as much as 50%. Speeding up housing construction is important, given that we need to increase supply very quickly. Because the units are produced indoors, they are, to a degree, unaffected by weather, increasing work efficiency and avoiding damage to building materials.

The units can be low waste, as the manufacturer is constantly building to the same plans, so often knows exactly what quantity of materials to use for any given job. That avoids the need for skips going on and off construction sites—we have all seen that. Units can be environmentally friendly, and not only because of the reduction in waste; if constructed properly, they can reduce disturbance on site. The properties are flexible, and can be extended or reduced because of their modular components; they could therefore be good housing for families, who could add to their home as their family grew. The builds are also often healthier, because of the controlled environment. Having said that, maintenance and repair can sometimes be more complex and costly; that needs to be factored in.

The real issue is how we ensure that the units and properties are well designed and of good quality to begin with, and that such properties can be produced at scale, as that is where the sector has failed in the past. Does the Minister intend there to be any financial incentives for the sector, particularly for low-cost housing? If so, how will he seek to ensure that we do not repeat the errors of the past and are able to welcome this innovation in housing design and delivery?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government) 10:09 am, 4th November 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.

I thank my hon. Friend Damian Collins for securing this debate on a genuinely important subject. We have an opportunity to ensure good-quality affordable housing. Both he and my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy were right to highlight that this country has the opportunity to lead the way and showcase some of the excellent work done in this sector of the industry. That is why I was rather disappointed and slightly surprised by the remarks of Dr Blackman-Woods. I cannot quite work out why the Labour party wants to spend so much time talking down the British housing industry. The hon. Lady spent more than five minutes talking about all the things she thinks are wrong in the industry.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I do not think I suggested for a minute that the Labour party would not support these innovations. I was arguing for good-quality design that could be rolled out at scale without repeating any of the problems of the past. I want to make it clear that the Labour party welcomes these innovations.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

I am pleased that we have managed to elicit that statement, given that we spent eight minutes listening to the hon. Lady list all the things in the industry she is not happy with. If Labour Members spent some time looking at what was going on in the British off-site and advanced construction industry, they would see that there is some phenomenal expertise out there. I am sure the industry will want to explain to them some of the things my hon. Friends and I have heard about through talking with the industry and visiting sites. I will talk more specifically about some of that later.

Today’s debate follows on from Second Reading of the Housing and Planning Bill and the problems we heard about then. The hon. Lady talked about the number of housing starts, but she, rather like the shadow Housing Minister, John Healey, seemed to forget that there were 75,000 and 88,000 housing starts respectively in the last two years of the Labour Government. That is the inheritance we had to build on, and the industry can play important part in that. Fortunately, despite what the hon. Lady said—her figures are somewhat out of date—we were back up to 136,000 starts in the last recorded 12 months, which is a big improvement on the disgraceful situation that Labour left, with just 75,000 starts in its last year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe will be fully aware that, during the recent election campaign, the Conservative party made it clear that increasing home ownership and house building would be a top priority. He was right to highlight the fact that the industry has a big part to play. We have been working on this issue since 2010 and, as I said, we have built the numbers back up, although nobody disagrees that there is still a long way to go. We want to see a lot more happen, and that is where the industry has a large role to play.

The number of first-time buyers has doubled since 2009, so our success in that respect is already apparent, but our ambition, which we are determined to realise, is to go further. A fully functioning and efficient housing market is vital to meeting the aspirations of working people and to raising our country’s productivity. That is why we are committed to encouraging not only home ownership, but increased housing supply, to make sure that we have more good-quality homes that people can afford to buy and that we support all parts of the housing market and all tenures.

The way we do that is equally important. We need to deliver more new, high-quality homes, with well thought out interior design, built quickly and efficiently. As was outlined by my hon. Friend today and earlier this week by my Norfolk neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Bacon, the industry can play a part by linking with custom build to make sure we remember that a house is built for a customer. We need to design homes that are right for the people who will live in them. The Government’s proposals in the Housing and Planning Bill are designed to achieve that.

We want to see innovation in the house building and construction sector. I want us to have a diversified industry —one that does not rely on the same old companies and build in the way we have for the last 50 to 100 years. The way we build homes—traditionally using the larger builders—involves the same techniques that have been used for 50 or, arguably, 150 years. On average, it can take 20 weeks to build a house, should there be—I say this only somewhat tongue in cheek—a good flow of weather. We need to move to a system where homes are built in weeks, if not days.

Innovation and new ways of working are key to the sector’s future. Industry needs to innovate to stay competitive. That applies to the construction of homes as much as to any other field. If the larger developers do not take these types of construction forward in the years ahead, there will come a point—even the chief executives of these companies have said this to me—where they risk being left behind. Competition is good for the industry. Homes in China are being constructed using 3D printers, and they are assembled in a matter of hours. It is suggested that such homes cost about £300 a square metre and it is claimed that they will last for 150 years. That might be a bit beyond where our market is, but it is certainly the kind of innovation that is coming. Such innovations should be a key part of our housing industry. Building the housing we need quickly and cost-effectively, so that people can move in within days of assembly starting, could transform this country’s rate of housing delivery from the 20-plus weeks we see with traditional techniques.

We are talking about modern prefabricated homes, but like others I like to use the phrases “off-site construction” or “advanced construction”. In our recent discussions with industry, we have been referring to advanced housing manufacture. Homes built using such techniques—there is a variety out there—are finally starting to set the benchmark for the latest, cutting-edge designs. They are built in highly controlled factory settings and the parts are assembled precisely and on-site. Advanced housing manufacture can not only deliver high-quality homes, but help to build them quickly and efficiently. The method is now being used widely in advanced economies around the world.

The Government are keen to encourage more innovation in the way we build homes, and we are doing that through our housing programmes. The hon. Lady asked what we are doing, so let me outline that. Through our housing zones programme, 30 brownfield sites across the country will be developed using £600 million of public funding, and we are encouraging the use of innovative construction on those sites. As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe outlined, brownfield sites are often in built-up areas, where small plots and busy streets are a perfect match for advanced techniques. It is good to have debates such as this so that we can highlight some of these points, and I hope people will take note of what is said this morning.

We are also funding innovation through our multibillion pound affordable housing programme. So far, a fifth of the homes in the homes and communities programme after 2015 will be built using innovative construction techniques. Our £1 billion Build to Rent fund is also helping to build 10,000 good-quality homes for private rent. Fifteen schemes to create more than 4,000 new homes are already in contract and more deals are in the pipeline. Again, we are encouraging innovative construction through that programme, and the private rented sector fits that approach perfectly. We are also backing the market with our £150 million Custom Build Serviced Plot Loans fund, which pays for the preparation of shovel-ready sites. Large numbers of custom and self-builders prefer to use off-site construction techniques, because they appreciate the high-quality, sustainable designs and the rapid construction.

Small and medium-sized builders are vital to achieving the higher levels of innovation we all want. We are supporting them through our £525 million Builders Finance fund, which provides loans to unlock small sites, and the £100 million Housing Growth Partnership run by the Lloyds group—we are partnering Lloyds in that—which helps small builders to invest in new projects and to develop their businesses.

The wider Construction 2025 strategy sets ambitious goals for reducing costs and speeding up the delivery of construction projects, as well as encouraging innovation in the sector. We are supporting construction firm Laing O’Rourke to develop its advanced housing manufacturing factory facilities through a £22.1 million grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There is also funding from industry more widely.

The Government are supporting the development of new apprenticeship and training programmes with a focus on off-site construction. Those are being led by industry players such as Laing O’Rourke and Skanska. It is important that we develop skills in the sector. What is beneficial about the programmes is that the skills they develop are different from the skills used in traditional techniques, and they can help with the huge skills shortage we have in the house building industry.

I welcome moves by industry to promote innovation in house building and to point the industry towards the future. I also welcome the opportunities presented by the techniques we are discussing. Last year, Buildoffsite launched its new housing hub to promote the benefits of advanced housing manufacturing. The hub aims to promote knowledge-sharing between clients and suppliers; raise awareness of new techniques; encourage new members; and develop a methodology to demonstrate the value of off-site solutions. The hub is continuing encourage wider take-up of the Buildoffsite property assurance scheme, which aims to give lenders assurance about the quality and durability of homes built using innovative construction methods. As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe rightly said, the lifespan these construction methods give—in many cases, as I outlined with the China example, it goes way beyond 60 years—makes these homes very viable for mortgage lending. I talk to mortgage lenders regularly about that and other schemes to make sure they are aware of the opportunities.

It is great when innovative schemes are brought forward, and I will describe some that I have seen. The Accord group in Walsall has a scheme providing homes for rent. They are made in a factory and assembled across the road on a housing site, and the staff are people who live in the area. I saw two homes being built in a day—a very impressive rate of building. Even if it was done to show off for “The One Show”, it proved what can be done. Bearing in mind comments made about skills this morning, I found it particularly interesting that of the 17 or

18 staff on that site, all but one of them, I think, had either been unemployed or had no experience of the housing industry before starting work, yet within a couple of weeks they were playing a part in building new homes. That is a good example how this approach can change the skills supply for the industry.

Innovative construction is also being used as part of the Bicester garden town scheme. High-quality energy-efficient homes are being built for rent, shared ownership and sale. I have also visited an off-site construction company in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, who is in the Chamber this morning; people are even being taught how to build for themselves. That is a great opportunity for young people to learn a skill and to be part of building their own home. It fits perfectly with my hon. Friend’s ambitions for the use of off-site construction in custom and self-build, which he is passionate about.

I recently helped to launch the Y:Cube scheme in Merton, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and others. Well designed, high-quality homes have been built there, using advanced housing manufacture; and they are being made available for rent to young people in the local area. Those homes offer affordable accommodation for single people who are volunteering or who are in training, education or full or part-time employment. They are well designed, drawing on the creativity of high-quality architects—some of the best we know, such as Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. They use new forms of construction to save time and costs.

I have visited a factory in Derbyshire where homes are being manufactured quickly and efficiently, again showing the possibility of a different skill set. The clean indoor environment extends the working life of people in the industry. Some of the units developed there are being used by Urban Splash, which is developing an exciting custom build scheme in Manchester, using off-site construction to enable buyers to customise their homes and create a bespoke solution, tailored to meet their needs. That is exactly the kind of development we want in the housing sector.

At Creekside Wharf in Greenwich, Essential Living is using an innovative modular technique to produce high-quality homes for private rent. All those schemes are just examples demonstrating the benefits that advanced housing manufacture can bring. They are a sample of what is happening: faster construction and good quality design and build, with low energy bills and the creation of jobs and homes. Council and social housing can also reap the benefits, as I have seen from the south Norfolk company that has developed homes for the local authority in Great Yarmouth.

Challenges remain, however, including shaking off stereotypical images of prefabricated housing based on some poor-quality past schemes such as the hon. Member for City of Durham described. We do the industry no justice by making such comparisons. What now exists is different; it is innovative and the quality is high. We need faster and more widespread take-up by a range of industry players who will encourage collaboration between developers and architects and work with communities, home buyers and planners, with the support of lenders. Then we can get things right. We need to build more homes in communities. Buyers, self-builders, renters and communities across the country appreciate homes of high quality and thoughtful design that are affordable and that are built quickly, in the right place. Advanced housing manufacture can achieve, or help to achieve, all that. It has enormous potential to create jobs and growth through a new factory-based industry. I encourage industry to go further with it, and use it more often. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe again on securing such an important debate.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 10:23 am, 4th November 2015

I thank the Minister and all hon. Members who took part in the debate. As the Minister said, we are at an important stage in the development of the advanced manufacture of homes for Britain. I was pleased to hear about his personal interest in the subject, as well as the Government’s interest, and about the role that advanced manufacture has in meeting the housing targets we have set for affordable homes to rent or buy. I hope that local authorities and public bodies that pick up on the debate will consider the use that they could make of such techniques in meeting their housing targets. I shall talk to the councils in my constituency about it, and I hope that other hon. Members will do the same. I am sure that we shall return to the subject in future housing debates.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered modern prefabricated housing.

Sitting suspended.