Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  Q220  Mr Francois: Minister, you are quite right. Thank you for your sweet words, but we did debate this at some length on the Bill and I do not think it is appropriate now to go over all of that again. But will you accept that there is a danger that if the local powers to resist inappropriate or unwelcome planning applications are weakened a lot of people will say, when we are all trying to boost turnout in local elections, "What is the point of electing local councillors of any particular political colour because when we really need them they do not have the power to stand up for us any more anyway?"

  Keith Hill: But you see, if I might say so, that is the reality of the situation now. Ultimately, it is within the powers of the First Secretary to override such local planning decisions. It is there already and I do not consider that we are looking at a major change in the way the planning system operates arising out of the new legislation.

  Q221  Mr Chaytor: Ministers, we have talked about 900,000 new houses a year, plus 200,000 from Barker. What is viable annual rate of construction?

  Lord Rooker: That is a good question. If I can give you the figures. We had already planned to build about 160,000 a year to the year 2016. The fact is, the building industry has been quite complacent. If you look at their total production over the last years, going right across the last twenty years, it is more or less the same. Whatever the economic situation, they have found a comfortable steady figure to build at. It is not enough for even replacement. So we want a step change. We had planned to build 180,000. The Communities Plan on average, with the extra 200,000, would give England an annual rate of about 180,000. The Barker scenarios take us up beyond those figures, of course, to indicative levels of 220,000. So I do not know what the figure would be. The fact is, we have got to look at skills and capacity. First of all, that is one of the reasons why modern methods of construction will be used. Firstly, they are more efficient in any event, but secondly they use different kinds of skills and we do have these skill shortages. So I could give you a figure and then you could say, "Well, you won't be able to build them because we haven't got the skills," and that would probably be correct as we are here today.

  Q222  Mr Chaytor: That is my next question, because Barker talks about a shortfall of 70,000 construction workers, I think.

  Lord Rooker: That is right. Anyone who trains to be a plasterer, a plumber and a brickie can make a fortune.[4]

  Q223  Mr Chaytor: So the issue is, if you are looking at over 200,000 a year, what are you doing about training the construction workers?

  Keith Hill: Well, if I might say so, the obvious answer is the work done by Sir John Egan and his report on   the skills requirements of the Sustainable Communities Plan. He has produced a very detailed report with, my recollection is, again something like sixty recommendations for equipping the planning, construction and architecture industries with appropriate skills, and of course he has also proposed the establishment of a national college which will be dedicated to developing the skills required for the Sustainable Communities Plan. The Government has of course said that it accepts that proposal.

  Q224  Mr Chaytor: Can you guarantee that the acceptance of the Egan recommendations will deliver the skilled workforce to meet the target of 200,000 plus new houses a year without a massive import of plasterers, plumbers and electricians from Eastern Europe?

  Lord Rooker: That is the plan, but coupled with the fact of changing techniques as well. We want to give a big boost to modern off-site manufacture, modern methods of construction. We have done that party to kick-start what is a very small industry in this country, it is about 1%. If we could get it up to 3, 4 or 5% over the next six or seven years, and home grown as well rather than imported. A lot of it is imported. The kinds of skills are different. They are not lower skills, they are different skills. There is a factory alongside the M6 motorway near Birmingham, as you go past it, just before you see the empty Ford Dunlop site, that used to produce UVPC windows. Inside that factory they have the capacity to build 5,000 houses a year. A private sector company. It has only just started, it is only two years old, and I think there are well over 1,500 or so like that now. I have been in the factory and on the sites. It is a totally different kind of skills. In fact some of the former car workers are actually in the factory. So we are looking at different methods of   construction, more modern methods of construction, coupled with what Keith has said about the Egan agenda. Hopefully we can get a match of skills and change of technology to actually service the output of the dwellings we want without massive imports of labour necessarily, or massive imports of the products, because there is a home grown industry here to actually create jobs and assets and economic growth in our own country.

  Keith Hill: I think the short answer is that we cannot guarantee that it will not be necessary to import skills. I do not think we have foreseen a massive importation of such skills. But on the issue of modern methods of manufacture, the Government is putting its money where its mouth is and it is very interesting that in the Housing Corporation's new building programme of social housing over the next couple of years, which will see a 50% increase in delivery of social housing, that 49% of those homes will be built on the basis of modern methods of manufacture.

  Q225  Mr Chaytor: On Monday this week I spend a day in Parkhurst and Albany Prisons on the Isle of Wight talking to inmates about schools and training and without exception every long-term inmate I spoke to wanted on their release date to work on a building site and they wanted to be bricklayers. Now, you will appreciate that this raises issues about standards and quality in the construction industry and yet in the Barker report on the question of regulating quality the recommendation she comes up with is fairly flimsy, is it not?

  Keith Hill: Well, if I might say so, the answer to all of these things is training, is it not? I read a wonderful story—

  Q226  Mr Chaytor: But, if I could just raise the point, it is also to do with regulation, is it not? All that Barker is saying here is that the House Builders Federation should develop a strategy to increase the proportion of house buyers who would recommend their house builder to somebody else from 46% to 75%. If you accept this, a quarter of purchasers of new houses are still going to be dissatisfied because they would not recommend their house builder to somebody else. So this is fairly lax regulation, is it not? My question is, what are you doing to drive up quality? Given we are going to have huge numbers of serial rapists and murderers coming out of Parkhurst and Albany seeking jobs on building sites to build the homes you want, what are you actually doing to drive up the quality?

  Keith Hill: Well, can I just say that I do not really want to go there with regard to who exactly is going to be building these things, but I would have thought there is absolutely nothing wrong in prisoners actually being trained in these skills. I was going to say that I read a wonderful story this week about training for pipeline layers, of which there is a national shortage, and apparently significant numbers of prisoners have been trained in these skills and the rate of recidivism amongst these pipeline layers is absolutely minimal. Actually, is this not a way forward for us all? On the question of the quality of the building, however—

  Chairman: I think we are straying somewhat and time is short.

  Q227  Joan Walley: I would just like to continue the whole debate about sustainable construction and take you to a different place, to Burslam, and maybe help you out there because on Friday I am going to be cutting the sod of a new construction college which has got £5 million worth of funding. But I think what we really want to explore with you in terms of the sustainable communities that are taking place now and Barker in terms of the training shortage and the construction skill shortage that there is and the lack of research that there is. What research is specifically taking place about construction methods for sustainable development? The Committee was in Aberdeen last week and we have also had BRE giving evidence to our Committee and it has been said to us that the funding that the Government is making available for research into sustainable construction has declined and what we really are interested in is to make sure that these new properties that will be going up have got the proper sustainable energy and everything else in terms of construction skills embedded into them. What research funding is available for this?

  Lord Rooker: Off the top of my head, I can tell you in some ways in construction, we do not want to pass the buck on this because we are speaking for the Government, but the DTI are involved in that. But if you have evidence from BRE, I would suggest that if you have not been there, go there. I was at BRE just over a year ago where they had got an exhibition, a symposium, the largest operation they had done in fifteen years for off-site manufacture, both the symposium for the week and the examples they had got there in their yard, because there is obviously a large space there, of the varieties and forms of modern methods of manufacture where the quality is vastly superior because it is basically quality controlled in factories. The big problem is to make sure on the site when it is put together you have got top quality control. That is absolutely fundamental because it ruins the whole work that has been done inside the factories if it is not put together properly. It is put together with precision rather than with a sledgehammer. So there is a lot of work going on on that and I would not argue about the money. It is not research, it is people we want and, as Keith said, training.

  Q228  Joan Walley: I think that point has been made very clearly to us, that if you do not have the workers on site actually knowing what they do and how they are doing it, you can lose all the gains you have got.

  Lord Rooker: Sure.

  Q229  Joan Walley: Just returning to the funding for research, one of the issues we were concerned about is the whole life impact of different construction methods and materials, including modern methods of construction and given the fact that the Housing Corporation already has, I think, quite a significant target to meet, are you satisfied that there is sufficient research into the kinds of new methods that we need to be looking at and how are you evaluating that because we would not want to be in the situation where we were building for the future but we were not using the best possible practical means of construction methods to do with sustainable development that we need?

  Lord Rooker: Well, the answer I would give to that comes from another exhibition I went to at the National Exhibition Centre, the big building exhibition. I was only able to go to one hall and I wanted to go to the offsite manufacturing hall. There were probably twenty companies on display and the key is this. You are looking at house building. Virtually any other building that goes up in this country, school, hospital, community centre, is not built with wet trades, traditional methods, it is built with modern methods of manufacture; probably even the prisons are as well. So it is not as if we do not have experience. The term "modern methods", by the way, I stole on behalf of ODPM from Manchester because when I was being shown some properties around there about what was being done with new build and refurbished, I remember saying to the developer, Tom Bloxham, "Tom, how do you describe what you are doing?" He said, "Well, I'm using modern methods of manufacture rather than traditional methods." As I say, we do this in other buildings. Go and have a look at them. There is nothing new.

  Q230  Joan Walley: But are we doing the research to check, because some of the evidence that we had in Aberdeen was that modern methods might not actually in the long term be as sustainable as traditional methods and it is about whether or not we are monitoring whether the research that we are doing is adequate or not.

  Keith Hill: Well, on the question of research, I was tempted to quote a very great man, who of course, as we know, said, "Why look into the crystal ball when you can read it in the book?" The truth is that modern methods of construction, offsite manufacture, are the norm in a number of countries, certainly in North America and very extensively in Germany, for example. So the technologies are there. They are well-tried and they are importable. But inspiration has winged its way to me on the question of investment and research and I can inform the Committee that we have a significant programme to support our building regulations development. That is approximately £5 million. It is the case that the DTI has the remit for construction and performance and I am also delighted to inform the Committee that the BRE has carried out a huge range of studies on technical performances.

  Q231  Joan Walley: They told us that the research money has been cut. You do not disagree with that?

  Keith Hill: I do not think we can comment on that.

  Lord Rooker: No. I do not know a body in the country, whether a quango or a research body, that does not say, "We need more money." But I cannot comment on the particular item.

  Q232  Joan Walley: Just turning to the Sustainable Buildings Task Group, which you mentioned just now, do you think it is likely that you will be going ahead with all the recommendations that were there, and if so what timescale are you working to? That includes the national centre as well that you talked about.

  Lord Rooker: On this Egan Review the remaining recommendations were expected late this month. We are taking forward the key recommendation, which is the national centre, which Keith referred to, and there is a list of the great and the good, including ODPM staff, Royal Town Planning Institute; CABE Institute, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, chartered surveyors CITB, English Partnerships, English Heritage and one or two others.[5]

  Q233  Chairman: This is not just a minute, Minister!

  Lord Rooker: There is a whole list of people on that looking at how we would operate this national centre and to locating it.

  Q234  Joan Walley: Have you got any shortlist for the location?

  Lord Rooker: No.

  Keith Hill: It is great doing these double acts because it does give you time to scrabble through your notes on it!

  Q235  Chairman: I think we should have you in separately next time!

  Keith Hill: On the question of the Sustainable Buildings Task Group, I can inform the Committee that we welcome the report of the Sustainable Buildings Task Group; indeed, I was present to launch its report, I seem to recall! We support the principles of their recommendations and will be responding formally on the recommendations by the end of this month!

  Q236  Joan Walley: Could you just tell us finally why BRE were not on that task force?

  Keith Hill: I do not know the answer to that.

  Q237  Chairman: Could you write and let us know, please?

  Keith Hill: Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Q238  Mr Francois: Looking at the Sustainable Communities Plan—and I declare an interest, Chairman, because my constituency is not actually within the Thames Gateway but it abuts it, so I know a little about it—the plan is often talked about, including by yourselves, as if it is synonymous with sustainable development. There is a lot of people who hold the view that it is seriously lacking in a significant environmental dimension. How would you defend yourselves against that charge?

  Lord Rooker: Well, look at page 5 of the Sustainable Communities Plan, where we set out there, if you like, a 12 point plan of what makes a sustainable community. I am not going to read them all out, it is there. That is what we are operating to. There are people, of course, who are against growth at any price and it takes longer to explain the reasons for the growth and what we are doing than it does to oppose, but we can quote example after example where since the plan was operated and since the policies were enunciated we get higher density, better quality developments, people want to go and live there rather than flee from there, and where we try and get it jobs-led. It is not a house building programme. We have only talked about numbers. We are not engaged in the Communities Plan on a house building programme. It is not about that.

  Q239  Mr Francois: Minister, just briefly, there were 12 points but, as I understand it, just one of them referred to the environment. The Energy Savings Trust looked at this directly and they criticised the plan as trying to build houses "as quickly and cheaply as possible, overriding environmental commitments", those are their words, not the Committee's. The plan was called by them "at best a missed opportunity and at worst reckless." What would you say to the Energy Savings Trust?

  Lord Rooker: That does not sound like a very professional analysis of what we are actually doing, as opposed to what they may have read. I can take you to examples of dwellings (both new and refurbished) where work is going on to try and find new techniques, because we do not want to go around demolishing things we do not need to demolish—there is one in particular in Smethwick where there is a group going on there—where we try to show that 100 year old dwellings can actually be upgraded so that they have got better environmental standards than even modern buildings I have been in with what we have been able to do to use these techniques. Elsewhere in the same area, I was in refurbished dwellings last week, blocks of flats where we are doing that, whether it is through grey water, energy conservation, a whole range of issues, and of course energy supply as well through the sun rather than through burning carbon fuels. So there is plenty of work going on. I am not saying it is perfect and every site is like that, it is not, but that is the direction in which we are going.

  Keith Hill: Do bear in mind, for example, that the last set of building regulations were designed to improve thermal efficiency by 25% on new build and if you look at the exemplar new build that we are developing through the so-called Millennium Villages, if you look particularly at the Greenwich Millennium Village, with which I am very familiar, as a result of recycling of water and as a result of improved fittings you are looking at water savings of something in the order of 30% in those developments. That is the sort of standard that we are obviously looking towards in these new developments.

4   Note by the witness: 71,000 estimated shortfall in housebuilding industry to produce her tower output scenario [220,000 units per year]. Back

5   Note by the witness: The government's response to the Sustainable Buildings Task Group is due at the end of July 2004. Back

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