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Housing: Prefabricated Council Houses

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 1 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will promote an architectural competition to design a standard prefabricated council house to current standards of insulation, energy saving and ease of construction.

My Lords, the housing White Paper set out specific measures to stimulate the growth of modern methods of construction, and the Government are encouraging industry to use these methods to deliver more homes. The industry has developed a wide range of modular and panelised systems for factory production to meet current standards. We do not propose to launch a design competition specifically to address the design and technical issues for off-site manufacture for council house building.

We sit in a magnificent Chamber which was designed as a result of an architectural competition to such an extent that, 180 years later, we are prepared to spend billions to keep it going. We still have some of the best industrial and architectural designers in the world, so surely with modern methods of production and commercial nous they could combine energy efficiency with comfortable, inspiring and good-looking homes and spaces. Does the Minister agree that a design competition in the domestic sphere could be a catalyst to resolve the current housing crisis? Do we not need a new impetus to bring together all aspects of housing development, planning, manufacture, building and finance?

My Lords, it is a good idea—it is such a good idea that we are doing it. I said that specifically in relation to council house building. BEIS is initiating a competition as part of the industrial strategy in relation to housebuilding, and I should also say in relation to clean growth and the ageing society—those are the two streams. Details of that competition will be available in the new year—it is being launched in the spring of next year—and I will make sure that noble Lords receive the relevant information.

My Lords, following on from the introduction by a Conservative Government in 1961 of the Parker Morris standards for social housing, which were revolutionary in their day, it is gratifying to see the Government pursuing their present position on offsite construction. Of course, this follows the Science and Technology Committee report in July of this year, which is encouraging it. I not only back the Question asked by the noble Lord earlier but ask my noble friend whether we cannot do more to try to encourage this development, bearing in mind the shortage of housing which undoubtedly we are now seeing in the country.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the important points he made in relation to standards. Design is now also featured in the NPPF. I very much agree with him about the importance of modular methods of construction. There are currently 48 manufacturers in the country—an increasing number in this area, many of which are very small, but it is an area that is being ramped up. It is important and helps deliver quickly the quality homes that people want.

My Lords, I agree very much with the previous question. In the 1940s, that great man Aneurin Bevan was not merely launching the National Health Service but running a very forward-looking and successful housing programme. Bevan insisted that council housing should have very much the same high qualities, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. The Minister is a forward-looking man, and I wonder whether I can invite him to cast his gaze back to the great days of the Attlee Government?

My Lords, my gaze does not go quite that far back, but I am well aware of what happened in that Government. Some very good work undoubtedly did occur and has occurred since then. We are a very innovative nation. The modern methods of construction is a constructive way forward. The noble Lord is right about standards; they apply across the piece to all types of housing, as does the design competition that is being launched, which will be open to both the public and private sectors.

Is it possible to also extend the argument around council housing towards transitional housing? There are some incredibly big developments being made on things such as geodesic domes. Why can we not build houses for 20 or 30 years, as we did after the Second World War, that can then be picked up and moved somewhere else? Of course, we would have to use some of the land, without having to buy it, for a transitional period of 10 or 20 years. We could sort out social housing and the lack of housing overnight if we put in some transitional housing.

My Lords, that certainly sounds ambitious. We talked about being innovative and forward-looking, and the noble Lord is. I am happy to take that idea back and to speak to the noble Lord about some of the ideas that he has just outlined.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Is the noble Lord aware of the excellent work undertaken by the London Assembly to promote the off-site manufacture of housing, led by my friend Nicky Gavron AM? Can he tell the House what the Government are doing to promote this type of construction and, in particular, about the scope for creating more jobs in the UK?

My Lords, I was unaware of the specific relationship that the noble Lord just mentioned, but I am certainly aware of the work of the Greater London Assembly. Much good work is being done across the piece. The noble Lord will be aware that £2.5 billion of the home building fund is being used to provide loan finance for modern methods of construction. He will probably also be aware that we have a working group on modern methods of constructions, which is looking at specific issues of mortgages and insurance, for example. The working group met in October with the Housing Minister. I will happily engage with the noble Lord to fill him in on more of the details, but we are very well aware of the importance of the issue and we are fostering and encouraging it.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Chancellor has recently allocated £36 million to Swansea University for active buildings? These are buildings that can store and release energy back into the grid and help to stabilise it. That funding has already recently been allocated.

My noble friend is absolutely right, and I have in fact visited the company, called Specific, in Swansea—it is in the SA1 district. As a modern methods of construction manufacturer, it is a very go-ahead company. As he rightly says, it has the added advantage of being carbon neutral and putting energy back into the grid. They are called BAPS—buildings as power stations—and are very innovative and very much on the radar of BEIS and the wider Government.