Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 140-159)



Mr Clelland

  140. You mentioned the issue of lifetime costs which is quite a sensible process in theory given that houses are supposed to last for 100 years or more. It is an idea that has been around for many, many years but is there any evidence that anyone is taking it seriously?
  (Mr Rouse) They are taking it seriously in other sectors. If you look at the way now that schools or hospitals procure—and I am not saying they are perfect by any means—or even courts or defence buildings do so, they are all done on a whole life basis and the Treasury is actually writing its Green Book at the moment on economic appraisal and that again reinforces this message, that it is now about whole life costs and whole life benefits.

  141. But no evidence that it is happening in social housing?
  (Mr Rouse) It just does not happen in terms of the social housing sector in the same way.

Christine Russell

  142. Sticking with the 100 years which you mentioned, Mr Robinson, that you believe that social housing should be constructed to a standard that it will last for 100 years, you are the Director of Development within Peabody which has pioneered prefabricated dwellings. Would you like to comment on how you feel the benefits of prefabricated construction would square with the 100 year life with what you are proposing?
  (Mr Robinson) As far as I am concerned, I would certainly expect that all the prefabricated housing that we are building would be there in 100 years. It is built to the same standard as anything else that we build and of course the Peabody Trust has, not far from here, many estates built over 100 years ago which are still popular and we have no difficulty in letting them. They have probably been modernised two or three times during that period. So you do have to return and invest large amounts of money bringing them up to contemporary standards. However, if the basic shell and the basic sense of the environment and quality of the neighbourhood is appreciated by people, then that investment is well worth making and much cheaper. As far as prefabrication is concerned, I think that actually, to some extent, I am rather surprised at the amount of debate and discussion this causes because, as far as the residents are concerned, for example the scheme which we built in Murray Grove in Hackney, most of them do not have a clue as to how it was built and are quite surprised when they are told. I think that we uphold `missing the point' if we get too hung up on how buildings are built. As long as we have the basic requirement for that longevity, then I think we will be all right.
  (Mr Rouse) I would also like to refer the Committee, if it has not been referred to it already, to the Housing Reform Report Homing in on Excellence about offsite fabrication and this was a group that included the council of mortgage lenders and other people whom you might expect have some ambivalence towards system built housing and I will just briefly quote from what they say, "Prefabrication of houses can offer significant potential improvements in both quality and speed of construction compared to so-called traditional site based construction. These include increased speed production, reduced levels of defects and waste, greater efficiency in the production process and improved environmental performance."

  143. If we accept all those arguments and this Committee, or I should say the old Committee, recently undertook an inquiry into new towns where we discovered major problems with prefabricated buildings that were basically all clapped out at the same time, can I ask you about local distinctiveness. We think in Britain that the building materials reflect the neighbourhood that properties are built in. How can you incorporate any kind of local distinctiveness into prefabricated buildings?
  (Mr Rouse) That is a good yet complex question. The starting point is first of all that the housing being built at the moment using traditional methods could hardly be called distinctive. We have already seen all those identikit housing estates splattered across our land. The thing with offsite prefabrication is to ensure that 80 per cent of the building is standardised, in other words the core components, because we do not need 55 types of bathroom tap, they can be standardised in a quite significant way and we can achieve cost savings by doing so. What we need to do then is free up the designers to use cladding and other materials to actually achieve the distinctiveness in the 20 per cent which actually contributes to a feeling of neighbourhood, a sense of having a home that is your own and has a distinctiveness about it.

  144. What would happen to the cost if you wanted to put Ruabon brick in North Wales and Collyweston stone in Stamford? How much would adding that local distinctiveness add to the cost?
  (Mr Robinson) I suspect that it might add quite a lot. I am trying to reflect on the idea of matt flint finished volumetric construction! I think there are two separate issues there. One has to think about distinctiveness which I think is an important thing that we want to try and achieve in the environment anyway. People will need to know that this town looks different from that town and so on and so forth. I am not necessarily convinced that that has necessarily to come from the local sourcing of materials, although I have to say that the scheme in which the Peabody Trust has been involved in Sutton in South London, the "Bed Z scheme", has a target of sourcing the maximum amount of material as possible from within a 30 mile radius and it was amazing how much could actually be sourced. Yes, there were some marginal increases in cost in that but possibly because it was a rather unusual thing to do and I think there is an entirely different kind of argument which suggests that as part of our regeneration strategy, we ought to put a lot more emphasis on local sourcing of materials, if only because of the economic benefits of doing that.
  (Mr Rouse) The only point I would like to add to that is that we do not believe that off-site fabrications can be right for everywhere. In terms of rural affordable housing, for example, it is going to have to be a much more sensitive solution.


  145. What you are actually saying is that prefabrication is not sensitive.
  (Mr Rouse) I am saying that it can be sensitive in particular contexts. In an urban context, it can work extremely well.

Mr Clelland

  146. We seem to be talking at the moment about what might be regarded as the traditional view of prefabrication but there are some quite modern ideas around. I remember seeing a story about a Japanese idea with these sort of hexagonal pods which are put together like a jigsaw puzzle. Are there new, modern methods of prefabrication which you would recommend or would you rather stick with the traditional methods?
  (Mr Robinson) I think it is very important to distinguish between a general view of prefabrication and volumetric construction because volumetric construction basically is not something we have seen before in permanent housing and it is not what system building in the 1960s was. Volumetric is trying to complete a large part of the building entirely with internal finishes within a factory and taking it complete to the site. Prefabrication, for example, includes things like Portcullis House where those huge elements of the exterior were brought on great trucks and hoisted into position. That is a prefabrication. These are two very, very different things it seems to me. The point about volumetric construction is actually about the quality of the finishing inside the building and those of us who are engaged in building housing of any sort on a day-to-day basis know that the most difficult is the last 15 per cent. It is when you get the finishing trades coming into the building that time seems to disappear and lots of flaws seem to creep in. If you put that in a factory with a factory controlled environment and hopefully increasing the kind of automation that we take for granted in motor car manufacture, we can get a much higher quality product. That is what we are striving to do in fact, to raise quality all the time.

Chris Mole

  147. On that last point, if the Committee want to see a fabrication factory, I have one in my constituency which everyone can come and look at! Given the shortage of supply of skilled trades, such as plumbing et cetera, in the construction industry, do you see OSF as critical to delivering the numbers of affordable houses that we wish to see in the future?
  (Mr Rouse) Yes. We can probably muddle by. There is the opportunity of bringing in internal labour, there are ways of muddling through. However, there is no need to do so. We can actually source the factory production in this country or we can import a certain amount from abroad as well. Across continental Europe, there is factory production of housing in place that we can tap into. So, given that we know that we can get five times less defects by going for factory based production methods, it seems sensible to actually extend our offer there.

Mr Cummings

  148. In your evidence, you mentioned the need for urban design plans for major housing developments in order to establish design principles. Could you perhaps briefly define what you mean by urban design plans and then could you tell the Committee what positive contribution you have made towards the whole problem of affordable housing.
  (Mr Rouse) Very simply, an urban design plan, as understood already within the planning system and within planning guidance, is a three-dimensional approach to thinking about how uses within an area will be distributed such as density, topography, landscaping and so on. It helps to set a vision for an area to clarify thinking and to get everybody signed up to the same principles and to control what then happens when you release the land to individual developers. So that, rather than people pepper-potting their own development within an area without thinking about the overall context, they have an overall plan within which to work. I want to be clear that we are not talking about slum clearance master planning that we saw in the 1960s. We are not talking about rigid plans from on high. We are talking about plans that are flexible and that can change over time and which have been properly consulted on with local people where there is local ownership of the ideas within them. Why are they so important? Let me just give you one example from an area I visited on Friday which was North Hull. In North Hull, they have to get to grips with a housing market renewal programme, the scale of which is just immense. They have 20,000 void units within the city. On one estate that I visited, 40 per cent of the units are void. The idea that you can just, in an ad hoc way, take out housing within that area is a complete misnomer. It would be disastrous because you would lose densities, you would lose local facilities and you would have isolated communities. That area has to be replanned if it is going to work.

  149. How do you believe the process can work?
  (Mr Rouse) I think we have already seen examples of how it could work well in areas which are already doing this. A very good example is Hulme in Manchester, which was probably replanned in the early 1990s following the felling of the deck access blocks. There is now a very successful neighbourhood with high levels of affordable housing to a very good form of urban design. Where people live on streets, they know their neighbours and they have children's playgrounds with access to local shops, and they have workplace opportunities within the same neighbourhood. Another example is Crown Street in Glasgow which replaced the Gorbals, which again has been done on great urban design principles.

  150. Is that process which you are describing to the Committee applicable to all developments?
  (Mr Rouse) I think it is applicable to all developments except for small in-fill schemes within existing urban and rural areas.

  151. Are you saying that it is a requirement of planning law?
  (Mr Rouse) There is already reference to the importance of urban design and planning within PPG1; I think that needs to be strengthened and I think that it probably needs to be written in some form of the planning code.

  152. Can you give the Committee any indication of where it is not written? You have spoken about where it is written. You have said that the legislation perhaps needs to be redefined and strenghened.
  (Mr Rouse) I think there are a number of areas across the country where it is not working.

  153. Tell us about those.
  (Mr Rouse) A good recent example is the west end of Newcastle where there has now been an abortive attempt to actually rethink the west end of Newcastle where they tried to do it, first of all, on too large a scale and, secondly, tried to move too quickly in terms of trying to get the housing on the ground before they had properly consulted local people and drawn up proper detailed master plans and, because of that, they have had to virtually start again.

  154. Are you saying that the urban design plan was faulty?
  (Mr Rouse) I am saying that they did not do a proper urban design plan.
  (Mr Robinson) Can I give another example of that because if you go and look at the first phase of the development of Barking Reach in East London, you will find an area that had been built out by the private sector and sold quite successfully, but it is not informed by any particular kind of urban design character which would make people want to stay there. So what you find is that the people who are buying flats there are moving every three years. The turnover in that community is quite phenomenal. I think this is the crucial thing about urban design, that it is actually about trying to make neighbourhoods where people will want to stay.

  155. You have mentioned the positive side and the negative side, but do you believe that urban design plans should be a requirement under revised planning policy guidance?
  (Mr Rouse) I think it should be a requirement on all of the new housing expansion areas that the Deputy Prime Minister is pushing forward in the sustainable communities plan. In areas particularly that are going to include greenfield sites, I think it is absolutely essential that we properly plan those areas. Whatever the faults of the new towns, they worked a lot better than many of the unplanned surburbanised areas that grew up at the same time and I think in many ways the better new towns and the garden cities before them are indicative of the importance of urban planning.

Mr Clelland

  156. I was interested in your point about the west end of Newcastle because it is in my constituency and I remember looking at the urban design plan. You say that there was no urban design plan, so I do not know what it was that I was looking at because it was quite an extensive plan before the public consultation took place. It is certainly true to say that it did not go down too well with the public and that there has been a rethink because of that, but I do not think it is true to say that there was no plan.
  (Mr Rouse) There was not the detailed plan that we would normally expect for regeneration of an area as sensitive as the west end of Newcastle particularly as Newcastle is doing some tremendous work and I am almost reluctant to criticise but I think that, in that particular case, they tried to undertake urban design work across too big an area with too little money. If you looked at the brief, the brief was insufficient, the work they were trying to define was not clearly defined and I think that is the reason why they are having to rethink now.

Clive Betts

  157. Coming on to the necessary skills that are available or not available, do the Housing Corporation and the RSLs and local authorities help the design and planning skills to actually deliver all the objectives that you are trying to promote?
  (Mr Rouse) No.

  158. What is needed to actually get the skills? Do we need new staff or training?
  (Mr Rouse) The starting point is that there are not enough people, full stop. Local planning authorities are best at just holding their development control functions together at the current time—

  159. So you welcome the Government's commitment for extra resources?
  (Mr Rouse) We certainly do, £350 million, but it is absolutely imperative that that money goes into planning authorities and does not leak away into other areas. This is a one-off opportunity and we have to make that money count. The second thing is that existing people working within planning authorities and indeed planning committee members need greater access to training and we propose that the Government should set up a national urban development skills academy or unit that would work with academic providers and other training providers to give planning officers and planning committees access to training. We are trying to put the planning system back on to the positive footing that it was on in the immediate post-war period. To do that, we need strategic planners, we need urban designers and we need economists back working within planning authorities and that is going to take time and it is going to need training resources to achieve it.

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