Examination of Witnesses(Questions 140-159)|
TUESDAY 22 OCTOBER 2002
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 procureand
I am not saying they are perfect by any meansor 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
(Mr Rouse) It just does not happen in terms of the
social housing sector in the same way.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
154. Are you saying that the urban design plan
(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
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.
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
(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.
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
(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.