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Housing and Construction Sector

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 14 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will lift all of the restrictions in place on the housing and construction sectors as a result of COVID-19.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, reopening the housing market and starting construction are mission-critical for our economy. Yesterday, the Government announced a plan to enable people to move home safely and to restart the housing market. This included new guidance to allow extended working hours on construction sites and help for the planning system to operate remotely, alongside the launch of a joint safe-working charter with the Home Builders Federation, supporting homebuilders to return to work safely; 100 separate organisations have signed up to this charter.

My Lords, this is a lucky day for me and for my noble friend the new Minister on the occasion of his first Oral Question. My Question, tabled a month ago, has been magically answered by some very welcome easing of Covid-related restrictions on homes and construction. I congratulate the Government on both. With so many people staying at home, and light traffic nationwide, does the Minister agree that now is the time to accelerate work on major construction projects and digital networks, and to push for the completion of 300,000 new homes a year?

I thank my noble friend for my first Oral Question. I agree with her sentiments. Obviously, this has to be done safely. We know that building 100,000 new homes contributes 1% of GDP. We also know that the construction sector employs 3.2 million people. We want to push ahead as safely as possible within Public Health England guidance.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what discussions he or his colleagues have had with the construction industry to satisfy themselves that there are adequate supplies of PPE, and that the supply chain for PPE is robust and will not fail, so as to allow greater numbers of construction workers to return to work safely, without putting themselves or their families at an unacceptable risk of becoming infected with Covid-19?

I thank the noble Lord for his Question. It is absolutely critical that construction work happens in a safe environment. The announcement yesterday of extending construction hours was precisely to do that—to enable travelling to work at times when public transport would not be busy. Also, there are very clear guidelines on how to carry out construction. Those are jointly agreed by the Home Builders Federation and the Government, and they include the appropriate use of personal protective equipment.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics show that construction workers have a higher fatality rate even than health professionals. There is clearly not enough personal protective equipment on sites, nor enough understanding of physical distancing. Does the Minister not agree that this move by the Government is reckless, in sacrificing construction workers and their families to this awful disease?

The noble Baroness points out that low-skilled workers in construction have a slightly higher death rate per 100,000, at 25.9 deaths per 100,000. However, we are not sure whether it is their occupation that is the causation. We obviously have an association, and I think we need to be careful and review the situation on an ongoing basis. That is why we have very clear guidelines that need to be followed to ensure that construction can happen safely.

My noble friend will be aware that some construction projects have continued despite the pandemic, not least HS2. As he is talking about the importance of safety and health, can he urgently look into the consistent serious breaches of self-distancing by HS2 contractors, not only on-site but in local shops and on public transport?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I will take it away and ensure that, where there are breaches in social distancing, we take it up with the appropriate authorities, and I will look specifically at HS2.

The government guidelines this week are very welcome indeed, but they are silent about the need for Covid testing for construction workers, and they do not say too much about the availability of hygiene and sanitary products either. Can the Minister give an assurance that it is possible for the construction industry to open and function, and to draw down on tests and equipment, without putting at risk the NHS or the care home sector, which is clearly pressing hard on the same issues?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I will work with ministerial colleagues to provide the appropriate guidance and ensure that there is availability of both personal protective equipment and testing to enable construction work to be carried out safely.

My Lords, the housing market will need a steady and sustained recovery. A vital ingredient of that is the supply of sites. There are worrying reports that some planning authorities are not planning to open until July. With the necessary social distancing and technology, a target of getting planning authorities up and running by the end of the month would seem reasonable. Similarly, in order to address the backlog of planning inquiries, and the very welcome news that some are now about to start virtually, can this be extended further? In lieu of that, would it be possible to extend the number of inquiries considered on a temporary basis by written representation?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Yesterday, the Secretary of State set out the Government’s expectations that the vast majority of hearings and other events are to take place virtually by mid-June, and that those involved in the planning process should work proactively to support this. I also take the point that this can be done virtually and by written representation, and I will take that up with the Secretary of State—particularly the point about written representation. On appeals, the Planning Inspectorate held its first digital hearing on 11 May, and the objective is for it to scale that up within a matter of weeks and to do all appeals virtually.

My Lords, the Government were right to introduce a ban on evictions at this time of sudden job losses and income reductions when rent arrears are inevitable, but the ban is due to end next month. Can the Minister tell the House whether that ban on evictions will be extended, to prevent a wave of evictions later this year? Have the Government considered the Spanish Government’s scheme to prevent grounds for eviction by enabling tenants to pay off arrears with interest-free loans spread over several years?

I thank the noble Lord for his question and for pointing to the intervention by the Spanish Government, which we will look into. The Government’s immediate priority has been to ensure that no one was at risk of being forced out of their home during this crisis, which was achieved through legislation and the stay on possession proceedings. These protections run in parallel to the unprecedented package of employee support and the £7 billion boost to the welfare system, which have sought to minimise the risk of tenants falling into arrears. Any tenant facing financial hardship should explore the support available through the enhanced welfare system. The government guidance for landlords and tenants sends a clear message that all should work together in good faith and investigate all solutions to overcome rent arrears, such as an affordable repayment programme, before eviction proceedings begin. The Government will, when the time is right, consider making changes on how best to support renters in both the private and social sectors through the recovery period.

I welcome the Minister to his first Oral Questions. With the biggest economic crisis about to hit the UK, what plans have the Government put in place to ensure that the construction industry has all the tools necessary to lead us through and out of this crisis, and what conversations, if any, have taken place with the relevant trade unions and the TUC?

I will look into the engagement with trade unions and write to the noble Lord on that matter. There have been a number of engagements with the Construction Leadership Council, and in my introductory remarks I mentioned the joint under- taking with the national Home Builders Federation, which provides guidelines on safe working practices for construction.

My Lords, sadly, the time allowed for that Question has elapsed, so we now come on to the third Oral Question.