[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Prefabricated Housing

Part of the debate – 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.