[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

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.